Swollen legs when flying: 5 questions and answers

October 3, 2016 | By More
Foot Swelling (Photo credit: A.D.A.M. Medline Plus)

Foot and ankle swelling (Photo credit: A.D.A.M. Medline Plus)

Have you ever gotten off a plane, looked down at your swollen legs — and become alarmed at their size?

Rest assured. It’s usually not a serious problem. Swollen ankles, feet and legs are common among travelers—especially older ones. With aging, many people experience edema (excess fluid buildup in the tissues) after long flights.

Although temporary, swollen legs can be more than unattractive. Depending on the extent of the swelling, you may experience discomfort from the stretching of your skin, or have a tough time getting your shoes back on (if you’ve taken them off during a flight).

What causes leg swelling when you’re flying?

The amount of legroom on flights seems to constantly be shrinking. And depending on the placement of your seat and the pattern of turbulence, it can be difficult to get up and stretch, especially on lights-out overnight flights across the ocean.

Being seated in one fixed position in a cramped space for a long period of time causes fluid to leave the blood and move into surrounding tissues. 

Is swelling more prevalent with age? 

Aging makes many things more complicated, including leg swelling. Older people are prone to experience more significant swelling and tightness after long flights than younger people for a variety of age-related reasons. For example, their veins don’t circulate blood as well as they used to, and they are more likely to be taking certain prescribed medications (e.g. blood pressure-lowering medications like calcium channel blockers).

Crossed legs are a no-no (Photo credit: MoreTimeToTravel.com)

Crossed legs are a no-no (Photo credit: MoreTimeToTravel.com)

What can you do to prevent swelling? 

There are a number of common sense ways to prevent or reduce swollen legs and ankles on long flights:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight,
  • Seek out flights and seats with more legroom, when possible,
  • Limit salt intake on the day of and during the flight (I always wonder why airlines offer pretzels and salted peanuts with drinks),
  • Keep hydrated and avoid excessive alcohol intake,
  • Opt for loose, non-binding clothing, and shoes that easily slip off,
  • Wear compression stockings,
  • Avoid keeping your legs crossed for long periods of time,
  • Wiggle your toes and move your legs in circles during the flight, and tighten and loosen your leg muscles, and
  • Get up, move, and walk up and down the aisle several times during the flight (your bladder will thank you, too).

If your legs swell, what can you do afterward? 

If your legs, ankles or feet are swollen after getting off the plane, it’s wise to elevate them (above your heart) to lessen the swelling.

Is swelling dangerous? 

According to a recent publication from the Mayo Clinic, swelling caused by inactivity during travel (e.g. on planes or long car rides) is usually harmless. However, it is prudent to seek medical attention if you experience:

  • Swelling that is is red or warm to the touch (this could be a sign of a clot),
  • Pain, tenderness or swelling in one leg (as opposed to both),
  • Any chest pain associated with swelling, and
  • Swelling that doesn’t dissipate after several hours of activity.

Sources:

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Category: TIPS

Comments (16)

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  1. Excellent article! This just became an issue with me. Now I swear by compression socks and re-hydration products in addition to lots of water.

  2. Maintaining a healthy body weight is probably the one piece of advice that may be difficult to achieve on the fly—so to speak. 😉 I’ve definitely noticed that it’s harder to slip my shoes back on after a flight.

  3. Laura says:

    Maintaining a healthy body weight is most important. My feet and ankles used to swell on long road trips, so I began stopping every hour or so to walk around to prevent this. Now I can do a 6 hour drive with one stop and my ankles don’t swell at all.

    My doctor told me there’s usually no worry if both of your ankles swell. The time to be concerned is if only one side is swollen because it could be a sign of something else more serious like a blood clot.

  4. Very helpful, thank you. It happened to me once on a cruise and just recently on a 4-hour fight. For me getting my feet above my heart always works. That and loads of water. –MaryGo

  5. Your timing is epic. This has never happened to me before except just a few days ago. We took a red eye from Kauai (used miles, you take what you can) I noticed that both of my feet were swollen in the car on the way home. Kind of freaked me out! Since is was an overnight flight, I only got up once. I also crossed my legs a great deal. I won’t let this happen again.

  6. Sue Reddel says:

    Great article Irene! I’m a huge believer in compression socks and wear them on all flights. I even use them for trade-shows or all day walking they make a big difference.

  7. So far — knock on wood — I’ve been lucky and never had swollen ankles. I always drink a lot of water on flights, and, of course, that means I make multiple trips to the toilet, which lets me stretch a bit. And in most planes I’m too tall to be able to cross my legs, so I don’t do that either. Thanks for the tips, though. I suppose it’s just a matter of time till this starts happening to me too on long flights!

  8. What a great article people often avoid writing about these things as they think they are not interesting. Will bookmark for our next flight great tips to help stop the cursed swollen ankles.

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