The risk of venous thrombosis is approximately 2- to 4-fold increased after air travel, but the absolute risk is unknown. The objective of this study was to assess the absolute risk of venous thrombosis after air travel.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a cohort study among employees of large international companies and organisations, who were followed between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2005. The occurrence of symptomatic venous thrombosis was linked to exposure to air travel, as assessed by travel records provided by the companies and organisations. A long-haul flight was defined as a flight of at least 4 h and participants were considered exposed for a postflight period of 8 wk. A total of 8,755 employees were followed during a total follow-up time of 38,910 person-years (PY). The total time employees were exposed to a long-haul flight was 6,872 PY. In the follow-up period, 53 thromboses occurred, 22 of which within 8 wk of a long-haul flight, yielding an incidence rate of 3.2/1,000 PY, as compared to 1.0/1,000 PY in individuals not exposed to air travel (incidence rate ratio 3.2, 95% confidence interval 1.8–5.6). This rate was equivalent to a risk of one event per 4,656 long-haul flights. The risk increased with exposure to more flights within a short time frame and with increasing duration of flights. The incidence was highest in the first 2 wk after travel and gradually decreased to baseline after 8 wk. The risk was particularly high in employees under age 30 y, women who used oral contraceptives, and individuals who were particularly short, tall, or overweight.
The risk of symptomatic venous thrombosis after air travel is moderately increased on average, and rises with increasing exposure and in high-risk groups.
In a cohort study of 8,755 employees of large international organizations followed for 38,910 person-years, Suzanne Cannegieter and colleagues find a risk of one thrombosis per 4,656 long-haul flights.
Blood normally flows smoothly throughout the human body, supplying the brain and other vital organs with oxygen and nutrients. When an injury occurs, proteins called clotting factors make the blood gel or coagulate at the injury site. The resultant blood clot (thrombus) plugs the wound and prevents blood loss. Sometimes, however, a thrombus forms inside an uninjured blood vessel and partly or completely blocks the blood flow. A clot inside one of the veins (vessels that take blood to the heart) deep within the body is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Symptoms of DVT (which usually occurs in the deep veins of the leg) include pain, swelling, and redness in one leg. DVT is usually treated with heparin and warfarin, two anticoagulant drugs that stop the blood clot growing. If left untreated, part of the clot (an embolus) can break off and travel to the lungs, where it can cause a life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism (PE). Fortunately, DVT and PE are rare but having an inherited blood clotting disorder, taking an oral contraceptive, and some types of surgery are all risk factors for them. In addition, long-haul plane travel increases the risk of DVT and PE, known collectively as venous thrombosis (VT) 2- to 4-fold, in part because the enforced immobilization during flights slows down blood flow.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the link between air travel and VT was first noticed in the 1950s, exactly how many people will develop DVT and PE (the absolute risk of developing VT) after a long flight remains unknown. This information is needed so that travelers can be given advice about their actual risk and can make informed decisions about trying to reduce that risk by, for example, taking small doses of anticoagulant medicine before a flight. In this study, the researchers have determined the absolute risk of VT during and after long-haul air travel in a large group of business travelers.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled almost 9,000 employees from several international companies and organizations and followed them for an average of 4.4 years. The details of flights taken by each employee were obtained from company records, and employees completed a Web-based questionnaire about whether they had developed VT and what risk factors they had for the condition. Out of 53 thrombi that occurred during the study, 22 occurred within eight weeks of a long-haul flight (a flight of more than four hours). From this and data on the total time employees spent on long-haul flights, the researchers calculated that these flights tripled the risk of developing VT, and that the absolute risk (the probability of something occurring in a certain time period) of a VT occurring shortly after such travel was one event per 4,656 flights. They also calculated that the risk of VT was increased by exposure to more flights during a short period and to longer flights and was greatest in the first two weeks after a flight. In addition, the risk of VT was particularly high in young employees, women taking oral contraceptives, and people who were short, tall or overweight.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The main finding of this study is that the absolute risk of VT after of a long-haul flight is low—only one passenger out of nearly 5,000 is likely to develop VT because of flying. However, the study included only healthy people without previous VT whose average age was 40 years, so the absolute risk of VT after long-haul flights might be higher in the general traveling population. Even so, this finding strongly suggests that prophylactic (preventative) use of anticoagulants by all long-haul travelers may not be justified because these drugs have potentially dangerous side effects (for example, they can cause uncontrolled bleeding). Subgroups of travelers with additional risk factors for VT might, however, benefit from the use of this and other prophylactic measures, but randomized trials are needed to find out who would benefit most from which prophylactic measure.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040290.
MedlinePlus encyclopedia pages on blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism (in English and Spanish)
Information from the US National Heart Lung and Blood Institute on deep vein thrombosis, including an animation of how DVT causes pulmonary embolisms
Information for patients from the UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia on deep vein thrombosis (in several languages)
Information for travelers on DVT from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the UK National Travel Health Network and Centre
This study came out of the WHO Research Into Global Hazards of Travel (WRIGHT) project, and WHO's WRIGHT project on Air Travel and Venous Thromboembolism, of which his study forms a part, has a Web site