Peripheral Artery Disease and Air Travel

By William Norman

Peripheral artery disease, a blood vessel condition that puts people at risk of dangerous clot formation, becomes even more dangerous when traveling by air. Sitting for hours in pressurized conditions can cause blood to thicken and blood flow to grow sluggish, creating prime conditions for clots that may not reveal their presence until days later, in the form of a heart attack or stroke. Medications can make air travel safer for these patients, while controlling the condition on a daily basis can lower the everyday risk of clots.

Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD), which the Mayo Clinic describes as a common disorder of the circulatory system, occurs when fats begin to coat and thicken the artery walls in the extremities. This narrowing, or atherosclerosis, of the arteries makes them more vulnerable to potentially fatal blockages. While these blockages pose an immediate threat of heart attack or stroke, they can also lead to infections or slow wound healing, most notably in diabetics.

Effects of Air Travel

Air travel may create dangerous conditions for people with PAD or other heart or blood vessel diseases. According to, the pressure changes during an extended plane flight can cause blood to coagulate more readily. Scientists have observed this phenomenon in studies using test subjects placed in pressure chambers. Slower blood flow throughout the body, coupled with a thickened blood volume, leads to the formation of clots. Most clots will not cause any symptoms, although some passengers may notice some swelling or pain. Arteries already narrowed by PAD, however, may encounter serious trouble under these circumstances.


People with arterial diseases run the risk of a heart attack or stoke if a clot forms in an artery during flight. According to, a paper delivered at the World Congress of the International Union of Angiology in March 2002 stated that this type of clot, or arterial thrombosis, causes more than 50 percent of all heart attacks. It also causes up to 80 percent of all strokes. Clots that form during air travel may go unnoticed until days afterward, when they may suddenly cause a health emergency.


Patients with artery diseases may take anticoagulants to prevent thrombosis occurring during a flight. The American Heart Association describes anticoagulants as a class of drugs that prevent blood from clotting. Aspirin is an over-the-counter anticoagulant for at-risk patients, or doctors may prescribe more powerful drugs, such as heparin or warfarin, for longer-lasting anticoagulant effects.

Ongoing Treatment

PAD patients need to take their condition seriously every day, not just during flights. The Mayo Clinic includes medications to lower cholesterol, high blood sugar or high cholesterol as possible therapeutic measures for the ongoing treatment of PAD, adding that smoking adds a major, and unnecessary, risk of strokes or heart attacks and urging PAD patients to give up the habit.

© Demand Media 2011