November 18, 2022

Swollen Feet After Flying: Everything You Need to Know

You've booked your trip to a magical getaway, with nothing but blue skies and relaxation to look forward to after months of hard work. You're finally on your flight, only to feel a strange sensation in your feet: your feet and ankles are swelling.

While foot and ankle swelling during air travel is common and typically harmless, it can put an uncomfortable damper on your holiday plans until your long flight lands and the swelling goes down.

Foot swelling is usually not an issue, especially if you're young, but as we get older our bodies are more prone to certain risk factors that make foot and ankle swelling during air travel more serious. For example, people who suffer from poor circulation, develop a blood clot, have a history of deep vein thrombosis, or are diabetic are advised to seek medical attention if swelling occurs.

Luckily, there are many steps you can take to prevent swollen feet, and reduce swelling during air travel. In today's article, we explain everything you need to know about preventing swelling and keeping yourself comfortable during air travel, and keeping your feet and ankles healthy.

Why Do My Feet Swell During Air Travel?

The medical term for swelling in the lower legs, feet, and ankles is edema, the buildup of fluid in tissues that otherwise do not swell during everyday activity. It occurs when the blood flowing through your body pools in the lower legs after a prolonged period of inactivity. This is usually temporary, but can be uncomfortable and increases the risk of a blood clot in certain high-risk individuals.

In an airplane, you tend to sit in one place for longer than if you were sitting at home or at the office. Anyone can experience swelling during air travel, but it's more likely to happen on long flights where you're sitting still for more than a few hours at a time. Combine that with the relatively small space for legs to stretch, and you have a recipe for developing swollen feet and ankles during your flight.

When you sit with your legs crossed and under you for too long, the pressure on your leg veins increases, increasing the chances of swollen feet even more. Maintaining adequate blood flow to the calf muscles and feet is critical to avoiding swollen ankles, especially if you're traveling for a long period.

The activities we perform during travel also increase the risk of feet swelling and leg swelling, even before you step on the plane.

Again, while foot swelling during air travel is rarely an issue, there are certain things you can do to improve blood flow and prevent swelling.

Drink plenty of water

Drink water before and during your flight. It may sound counterintuitive to take in more liquid while trying to prevent excess fluid, but adequate hydration flushes sodium out of the body, reducing the likelihood of fluid retention. Most airlines allow you to keep an empty reusable water bottle in your carry on bag, which you can refill throughout your travel. Stay hydrated, and be mindful of how much salt you're eating.

Reduce your salt intake

For one, most travelers tend to dine in restaurants and eat salty snacks before and during air travel; foods high in salt promote fluid retention. Most airlines offer pretzels loaded with salt, increasing your risk more. If you also consume alcoholic beverages before and during longer flights, you dehydrate the body and force it to retain fluid to compensate. Combining adequate water intake with limited sodium can reduce the likelihood of your ankles and feet swelling.

Get your feet moving

When the "fasten your seatbelt" light is off, try to get up and stretch, walk, and move your feet around every hour. Keeping the legs moving is one of the best things you can do to reduce the chance of swollen legs and feet. Long periods of inactivity are the primary causes of swollen feet, so also try to avoid restrictive clothing that makes moving around difficult or cumbersome. Avoid crossing your legs for too long, as it increases pressure on your lower legs and impacts the deep veins circulation.

Consider wearing compression stockings or compression socks

Podiatrists recommend wearing compression stockings for people who are prone to swelling or have blood circulation issues during air travel. They provide mild compression around the legs. They work by correcting poor circulation byimproving blood flow from the legs back to the heart. Some doctors may advise certain people to wear compression stockings even if they are not flying for this very reason.

Wear comfortable shoes

Comfortable shoes that can be easily removed to allow you to massage your feet and ankles are essential. Podiatric medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Schneider recommends wearing shoes that have support, but also a little "give" to allow for mild expansion if swelling occurs. Tight shoes will increase discomfort.

Rest your legs and elevate your feet

Before and after your flight, it is recommended to keep your legs elevated to improve circulation. Elevation and gentle care for your feet is a critical step to take after sitting for several hours in a locked position.

Swollen Feet After Flying: Summary

Foot swelling during air travel is a common issue, and while rarely a serious problem, can be particularly uncomfortable. People prone to blood clots have blood circulation issues, and other medical conditions that impact the blood vessels should always speak to their physician about travel plans, and seek medical attention if swelling is especially severe and persists for long periods of time.