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Legs and feet that are swollen after a long flight are uncomfortable, but not uncommon. When you spend a lot of time in a confined space and are unable to move around much, the veins in your legs have a hard time circulating blood back up to your heart. This can cause pressure and swelling in the lower half of your legs.

Wearing compression socks while flying is becoming a popular method of preventing post-flight swelling.

While compression socks do have benefits for air travelers, there are some things you should know before giving them a try. This article will cover everything you need to know about wearing compression socks for flying, including types of socks, and who should and shouldn’t wear them.

Compression socks and compression stockings are garments that squeeze and stimulate circulation in your calves and feet. These types of socks and stockings fit tightly against your body and have a bit of stretch built into their fabric so they hold their shape.

There are three primary types of compression socks.

Graduated compression socks

Graduated compression socks encourage circulation by applying pressure at your ankles. As the socks move up your leg, they become less tight. Graduated compression stockings generally require a prescription and a professional fitting. They’re typically designed to meet certain medical standards for flexibility, strength, and length.

Nonmedical support hosiery

Nonmedical support hosiery are designed to be more flexible than graduated compression socks. They don’t require a prescription and are readily available in stores and online. Nonmedical support hosiery are typically used to treat tired legs and to encourage circulation.

Anti-embolism stockings

Anti-embolism stockings are designed to prevent the condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The level of compression these socks offer can vary. In general, anti-embolism stockings are made for people who have limited mobility. Similar to graduated compression socks, these stockings require a prescription to purchase.

When you’re on a long flight (5 hours or more), chances are, you’re not going to move around too much during that time. When you’re cramped in a small space and not moving around, circulation between your heart and lower legs slows down.

Your calf muscles are what send blood from the bottom half of your body back up through your circulatory system to your heart. When these muscles aren’t constricting, circulation isn’t happening efficiently. You may experience swelling, tingling, and discomfort. The reduced circulation can also put you at a higher risk for pulmonary embolisms and blood clots.

If you don’t have a prescription for compression socks, nonmedical support hosiery are the compression socks generally recommended for travel. These types of compression socks can be easily purchased online or from pharmacies. You can choose a compression level according to what makes you most comfortable.

To purchase a pair of nonmedical compression socks online, click this link.

When to put them on

To wear compression socks for flying, you may want to practice putting them on a few times before your flight. Getting them on your feet, especially in the tight confines of an airplane, can take some getting used to. The best time to put them on might be right before you board, while you’re waiting at your gate.

How long to wear them

You can wear compression socks for extended periods, so you can also pop them on your feet at home before you begin your journey to the airport. However, discomfort and possible side effects may appear after a few hours of continuous use. See the section below for possible side effects.

How to avoid blood clots while flying

Compression socks aren’t the only option for avoiding blood clots while traveling. Other tips include:

  • Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing that encourages healthy circulation.
  • Maximize in-flight legroom by stowing all your belongings in overhead compartments.
  • Drink plenty of water before and during your flight.
  • Avoid high-sodium and salty foods while you’re at the airport and in flight.
  • If you’re permitted, stand up and walk the length of the airplane every hour or so during long flights.
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Compression socks do have some side effects. Even if you’re used to wearing compression socks at home, the dry air, cramped conditions, and unpredictable nature of air travel can make side effects more likely.

Possible side effects of wearing compression socks while flying include:

  • loss of circulation
  • burning or chafing
  • bruises and broken skin

Keep in mind that when your compression socks are properly fitted, side effects aren’t as likely to occur. Misuse and overuse of compression socks can increase your chances of uncomfortable symptoms.

Your doctor may recommend compression socks for travel if you have:

  • chronic venous insufficiency
  • a history of blood clots
  • recently had surgery for varicose veins
  • a medical condition that makes you more prone to DVT, such as cancer

Even if you don’t have any of the above conditions, compression socks can make your flight more comfortable if you tend to experience swelling and loss of circulation during air travel.

Who shouldn’t wear compression socks

If you have skin that’s easily bruised or a compromised skin layer that scrapes or bruises easily, wearing compression socks isn’t recommended. They can cause injury to your skin, and the chafing or sores caused by compression socks can even lead to an infection if they aren’t taken care of properly.

If you’re unsure if compression socks are a good choice for you, talk to a doctor before using them on a long trip.

Compression socks may also be helpful for when you’re traveling by car. Long car trips can confine your legs, suppress circulation, and cause the same blood pooling and swelling symptoms as a long flight.

This is especially true if you’re the passenger in a car, since at least the act of driving stimulates movement in your calves. If you travel often by car, consider packing some compression socks for your next cross-country drive.

If you suspect you have blood clots or DVT, you should speak to a doctor, regardless of whether you have a big trip coming up or not.

Signs and symptoms that should warrant immediate medical attention include:

  • swelling in one leg or both legs
  • persistent leg cramps that you can’t get rid of
  • visible veins in your legs that are red or swollen to the touch
  • sudden redness or skin discoloration on your leg

Don’t ignore or try to self-treat symptoms of DVT. The condition can be life threatening if not addressed by a medical professional.

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Compression socks are a simple treatment that can make long flights and car trips more comfortable. If you have a history of blood clots or venous insufficiency, compression socks can promote healthy circulation and ease your peace of mind while flying.

If already you wear over-the-counter nonmedical grade compression socks often, you might want to consider upgrading to a prescription pair through your doctor.

Never ignore or try to self-treat symptoms of DVT. The condition can be life threatening and should always be addressed by a medical professional.