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Economy Class Syndrome: A Real Threat?

Are you planning a long flight as part of your summer vacation plans?  Have you heard of "Economy Class Syndrome" and wondered what it is and whether it can  affect you?  And is flying First Class the only solution?

"Economy Class Syndrome" is the name given to explain recent high profile deaths in economy class travelers on lengthy airplane flights.  In reality, these patients actually died from something called pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening condition in which a blood clot travels from a vein in the calf muscle into the lung causing the lungs to collapse.  These blood clots are called DVT's, or deep vein thromboses-and they can occur as a result of many risk factors.  Cramped airline cabins restrict leg movement that keeps blood free flowing and clot free, but there are preventive steps that can be taken.  Walking around is one of them; moving your legs and doing exercises while seated is another good idea.  And when traveling on any long trip, be sure to avoid restrictive garments like knee highs or tight shoes.

While DVT's generally affect people over 60, pregnant women, obese or sedentary people, diabetics, people who have already had blood clots, and smokers are also at greatly increased risk.  Certain medications such as estrogen (including birth control pills) or raloxifene, can also increase the risk of DVT in women.  In the US, DVT affects about 1 in 500 people and accounts for nearly 800,000 hospitalizations per year.  Nearly one in 4 people with DVT develop pulmonary emboli which is a leading cause of death.   British authorities have reported at least one DVT-related death per month at Heathrow Airport alone. 

The symptoms of DVT are one-sided calf pain, swelling and discomfort that worsens over time.  The pain can also be behind the knee and increases with standing or walking.  If you have risk factors for DVT and must take a lengthy trip, try to walk for at least 5 to 10 minutes every hour.  You can also ask your doctor if you should wear compression stockings to assist your circulation.

For more information, click here.

Created: 8/8/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.
Reviewed: 6/30/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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