Air travel can be both exciting and stressful, but if you have significant ankle swelling or foot swelling after your plane lands, you may be at risk for potentially dangerous health problems.

While most cases of joint and limb swelling after a flight aren’t severe, in the worst case scenario some can ultimately lead to death. Being aware of the risks of ankles and feet swelling on a plane, looking out for symptoms, and knowing how to prevent it from happening are the best ways to alleviate this often-stressful aspect of airplane travel. A little self-care before and during your flight can go a long way toward ensuring that ankle and foot swelling doesn’t spoil your vacation.

Why do Feet Swell on an Airplane?

Swollen ankles and feet result from the accumulation of fluid building in the body during a flight. Limiting usual mobility causes the flow of blood to joints and limbs to become much more sluggish than usual. When the legs and feet aren’t moving as much as usual, blood flow is hindered to the ankles and feet, encouraging swelling.

How to Prevent Swollen Feet After a Flight

You’re much more likely to suffer from swollen ankles and feet after a long-haul flight, but you can take some steps to prevent such symptoms during the flight and after you land. Wear compression stockings or compression socks, especially during long trips, to reduce or eliminate post-flight ankle and foot swelling. If possible, get up and walk around the plane every 30 minutes or so to avoid being seated for long periods of time. While seated, use your legroom and stretch and flex your lower legs and calf muscles to increase blood circulation through your leg veins. Be sure to drink plenty of water because hydration is very important to avoid leg swelling. You should also avoid eating salty foods and salty snacks before or during the flight because it can cause excess fluid retention, which can lead to poor circulation.

Problems and Potential Risks

Swollen ankles and feet – which are medically called gravitational edema – can make movement and fitting into shoes painful after flying. This might be annoying, but is not necessarily dangerous. If you often get swollen feet after a flight (and have ruled out potential health hazards with your doctor), remember to bring shoes or sandals with a little extra room.

In some cases, swollen joints and limbs indicate blood clots and the potentially fatal condition known as deep vein thrombosis. If a blood clot becomes lodged deep into a vein after a long flight and breaks off, it can cause an embolism; even if death doesn’t occur, serious and debilitating damage to vital organs can result. Signs of deep vein thrombosis, in addition to swelling of the feet and ankles, include redness, warmth to the touch and/or pain in the affected limbs.

Risk Factors for Swollen Legs After Flying

People who are significantly overweight may be at heightened risk for ankle and foot swelling after a flight, as are men and women over the age of 60. Menstruating women also are more prone to develop swelling and blood clots after long flights. Men and women who regularly exercise even when not flying are less likely to suffer from severe limb and joint edema after flying; they're more likely to avoid potentially fatal problems such as blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. Check with your healthcare provider to see if you are at a greater risk.

Getting Medical Help

If you become short of breath or have chest pain along with your post-flight ankle and foot swelling, seek immediate medical attention. If you're on the plane, press your call button and describe your symptoms to a flight attendant. If you've already deplaned, call for emergency medical assistance. If you have signs of deep vein thrombosis without any chest pain or shortness of breath, you still need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Prompt detection of any blood clots enhances the chances of successful treatment; a doctor likely needs to run post-flight blood tests and perhaps an EKG, to determine if your joint and limb swelling indicates a blood clot.