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air travel blood clot risk

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Web Posted 12:59 AM ET, May 14, 2001.

LONDON, England Long-haul flights can lead to potentially serious blood clots, but travellers can reduce the risk of clotting by wearing below-the-knee elastic compression stockings, experts said Friday.

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     Dr. John Scurr, a British vascular surgeon who conducted a study of flying and deep vein thrombosis (DVT), said any immobility for long periods of time can lead to blood clots.

     ``Blood clots are associated with long-distance travel,'' he told a news conference. ``The risk of a serious problem is very low.''

     DVT, dubbed ``economy class syndrome'' because of the cramped conditions on planes, are blood clots that form in major blood vessels, usually in the leg. The condition can be fatal if part of the clot dislodges and travels to the brain or lung.

     News that a 28-year-old woman died of the problem after a flight from Australia to Britain last year made international headlines and caused alarm among air passengers.

     Scurr's research, reported in The Lancet, is the first study in which passengers were examined before and after long flights.

     ``It shows a very definite link between long-haul flying and the development of small thromboses clots,'' the surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital in London said. ``One in 10 people are at risk of developing a small blood clot.''

     Most of the small clots resolve themselves, but some could progress to larger clots and require treatment, he explained.

     Scurr and his team studied 230 people, all over the age of 50, who took flights lasting more than 8 hours. The passengers were randomly divided into two groups. Half the travelers wore compression stockings and half did not.

     Using a very sensitive ultrasound technique, the investigators detected very small blood clots in 10% of people who did not wear the stockings but none in those who did were the stockings.

     ``The advantage of wearing elastic stockings is that it stops even tiny clots starting,'' Scurr told Reuters.

     Most of the people had no symptoms and were unaware that they had the small blood clots. A few of the passengers required treatment with blood thinners.

     Scurr recommends using compression stockings, which are sold in medical supply stores, to avoid blood clots during long-haul travel.

     Although the researchers studied passengers on long flights, they said the results could apply to any method of travel that causes long periods of immobility.

     ``It can affect anybody, using any means of transport, if they sit long enough,'' said Scurr. But he added that the elderly and people with previous blood clotting problems were at greater risk.

     ``Flying is very safe for the majority of people but there are some people at risk and it is difficult to identify them,'' Scurr explained.

     The research will form the basis of a much larger study undertaken with the World Health Organization. Scurr said the new research could begin later this year and the first results will be available in about 18 months to 2 years.


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