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|Updated May 1, 2006|
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During air travel blood coagulability rises steadily and blood flow slows down, especially in the lower legs. About 3-5% of air travelers develop clots, usually painlessly, but some clots cause pain and swelling. If a clot travels to the lung it can cause pain, fainting and death. A clot in the leg is called deep vein thrombosis, DVT. A clot in the lung is pulmonary embolism, PE. Clots also form in the arterial system and in the heart, leading to heart failure and stroke.
Dr. Stanley Mohler, Director of Aerospace Medicine at Wright State Medical School, calls this the Stealth Disease because often there are no symptoms until several days after the flight and the victim has no idea what is wrong. DVT is usually mistaken for a cramp, even when the victim is a physician. Correct diagnosis and treatment is usually delayed, aggravating the injury and increasing the risk of permanent vein damage and further injury or death when a clot travels to the lungs, brain, or heart.
US airlines are giving misleading information about this. Delta Airlines website says "These clots are not serious." Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, told the NY Times "We have done more than enough to inform the traveling public about this."
American Airlines' American Way magazine has a very good page on DVT including symptoms to watch for. If you see anything similar on any other airline, or if American drops their page, please let us know via the Contact page.