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How to Prevent Swollen Ankles After Flying

How to Prevent Swollen Ankles After Flying

Nicolle Harwood-Nash
7 minutes read
Last Updated: September 19, 2023

Do you suffer from swollen ankles after flying? You're not alone. Post-flight swollen ankles are quite a common issue, whether you're jetting across the world frequently or just hopping on a plane for a getaway.

At AirAdvisor, we're your friendly sky companion, ready to make those not-so-fun parts of flying a little less of a hassle. In this article, we discuss what makes legs, ankles and feet swell on a flight, why it matters, how long it lasts, and, most importantly, how to avoid it.

What Causes Feet to Swell During a Flight?

So, why do your feet decide to play up the minute you're cruising at 35,000 feet? The main reason is inactivity. When you're sitting in your seat during a flight, especially a long-haul flight, the lack of movement means your calf muscles aren't doing their usual job of pumping blood back up from your feet and ankles. This can cause fluid to pool in the lower legs and feet, leading to swelling, also known as edema.

Another reason for lower limb swelling during a flight is cabin pressure. It can lead to the expansion of gases in the body, which contributes to swelling. Dehydration can also be a factor. Aeroplanes are notorious for their dry environment, which can lead to water retention in the body as it tries to compensate for the lack of hydration, resulting in foot swelling.

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What are the dangers of flying with swollen legs?

Swollen legs, ankles and feet are uncomfortable. They can create a tight, unpleasant sensation in your clothes and shoes, making your journey unenjoyable. While swelling itself isn't typically dangerous, there can be more serious matters of concern when flying with swollen legs.

For instance, it can exacerbate existing problems like varicose veins, as these conditions can cause the valves in your leg veins to stop working correctly, making it harder for blood to flow back to your heart.

The most significant danger of flying with leg swelling, however, is the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition where blood clots form in the deep veins of your legs. Long periods of inactivity, like a flight, can increase this risk. Swelling may indicate that blood flow in your legs is compromised, which can potentially lead to DVT. Although the overall risk is quite low for most people, it can be higher for those with certain medical conditions or risk factors.

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How Long Do Ankles and Feet Remain Swollen After Flying?

While swollen ankles and feet after flying can feel quite alarming, it's generally temporary and starts to subside once you resume normal activities. Most individuals will notice a significant reduction in swelling within 24 hours of landing. For others, it might take around 2 days for the swelling to fully recede.

In some cases, particularly after very long flights or for individuals predisposed to swelling, the edema may persist a bit longer. It could take up to 3 days or even a week for ankles and feet to completely return to normal.

It's crucial to seek medical attention if the swelling doesn't reduce after a week or if other symptoms accompany the swelling.

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How to prevent swollen ankles when flying?

Understanding the reasons behind flight-induced swollen ankles is the first step, but prevention is the next, and arguably the most important, step. Below, you can review some tips for preventing foot and ankle swelling when flying:

Tips Before Flying

Here, you can review some things to do before your flight to prevent swollen ankles:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water before your flight to counteract the dehydrating effect of the cabin environment.
  • Limit salt: Reduce your salt intake in your pre-flight meals, as salt can lead to water retention.
  • Exercise: Engage in regular exercise on the days leading up to your flight, as this can help improve your circulation.
  • Check your health: If you have a health condition that makes you prone to swelling, consider a medical check-up before your flight to ensure everything is under control.
  • Rest well: Getting a good night's sleep before your flight can help your body better cope with the stresses of flying, in general.
  • Choose the right footwear: When choosing your shoes for the flight, opt for loose, comfortable shoes that can accommodate any potential swelling.

Tips During Flight

Here, you can explore some preventative measures to deploy during your flight to keep swelling at bay:

  • Move regularly: Sitting for long periods can contribute to swelling, so try to stand up and move around every hour to get your blood flowing.
  • Wear compression stockings: Compression stockings apply gentle pressure on your legs, promoting blood flow and helping to prevent swelling.
  • Stay hydrated: Keep your water intake up throughout your flight.
  • Avoid alcohol: Alcohol can lead to dehydration and make swelling worse, so it's best to avoid it while flying.
  • Elevate your feet: If possible, lift your feet off the ground to reduce swelling.
  • Loosen up: If your legs, feet or ankles start to swell, remove your shoes to relieve pressure.

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Can Swollen Feet During a Flight Lead to Blood Clots?

Swollen feet during a flight are not only uncomfortable but can also raise questions about more serious conditions, such as blood clots. As discussed earlier in this article, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a particular concern when flying, especially during long-haul flights, involving blood clots forming in the deep veins of your legs.

While swollen feet and the risk of developing blood clots when flying might seem related, it's crucial to understand that not all cases of swelling lead to DVT. Factors like personal or family history of blood clots, pre-existing medical conditions, and even certain lifestyle habits can influence an individual's risk.

It's also worth noting that the risk of flying with blood clots can be significantly reduced by taking appropriate preventive measures, like regular movement, hydration and wearing compression stockings.

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Should I See a Doctor if My Ankles Swell After a Flight?

If you experience foot swelling or ankle swelling after a flight, it's typically no cause for alarm. Most cases resolve within a few days with rest, hydration, and movement. However, if the swelling persists beyond a week, is accompanied by severe leg pain, redness, or heat, or if only one leg is affected, it's essential to seek medical attention. These could be signs of more serious complications like a blood clot, and timely medical intervention is vital.

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Navigating the realm of foot and ankle swelling during air travel can bring up a lot of questions. To help clear the air, we've assembled some of the most frequently asked questions on this topic and provided concise, easy-to-understand answers:

How long do swollen feet and ankles last after flying?

The duration of post-flight swelling can vary from person to person, largely depending on factors like flight duration, individual health conditions, and lifestyle. However, most individuals experience a significant reduction in swelling within 24 hours of landing.

As mentioned previously, for some, it might take around 2 days for the swelling to fully subside. And in less common instances, particularly after long-haul flights or for those prone to swelling, it could take up to 3 days or even a week for ankles and feet to completely return to normal.

How to get rid of swollen ankles after flight?

Navigating the journey of how to get rid of swollen ankles after flying doesn't have to be complex. Overcoming post-flight swollen ankles doesn't have to be a monumental task. With some simple at-home practices and a keen focus on maintaining good circulation, you can return your feet and ankles to their normal state.

The following is a list of easy-to-follow, practical tips to help you effectively manage and reduce the swelling after your flight:how to get rid of swollen ankles after flying:

  1. Be active: Try to engage in light physical activities like walking or stretching to improve blood circulation.
  2. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and also help flush out excess fluids.
  3. Elevate your feet: Whenever possible, prop your feet up on a stool or pillow to reduce swelling.
  4. Use a cold compress: Apply a cold compress to your ankles for 15-20 minute intervals to reduce inflammation.
  5. Wear compression socks: These can help improve blood flow and reduce swelling, after your flight as well as during your flight.
  6. Limit salt intake: Consuming too much salt can contribute to water retention and swelling.

Why are my ankles swollen after a flight?

In summary, edema, or swelling in the ankles after a flight, is primarily caused by a combination of reduced physical activity and the physiological responses to high-altitude conditions. Prolonged sitting during flights hinders the natural pump mechanism of your calf muscles, leading to fluid accumulation in your legs, ankles and feet.

Compounding factors such as cabin pressure and potential dehydration in the plane's arid environment can intensify this effect, leading to noticeably swollen lower limbs, including ankles.

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