Each year, up to 900,000 people in the U.S. have a health scare with blood clots. And about 100,000 of them will die.
Thrombosis, or the formation of blood clots in a vein or artery, is a common problem that many people don’t know about. Yet blood clots happen to people of all ages and ethnicities. And it’s a common issue for both women and men.
There are different types of thrombosis that happen in different parts of the body. The two main types are arterial, clots that form in an artery, and venous, clots that form in veins. Clots that form in veins are much more common than arterial blood clots.
There are three categories of blood clots that form in veins: deep vein thrombosis (DVT), pulmonary embolism (PE) and venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTE happens when a clot forms in a vein in your leg, groin or arm (DVT) and travels into the lungs, causing PE. VTE is a dangerous, possibly fatal condition. Worldwide, there are about 10 million cases of VTE each year.
VTEs are often preventable. You can protect yourself by learning the symptoms and risk factors and what you can do to lower your risk.
Learn the Symptoms
Blood clots can be life threatening and must be treated immediately for the best chance of success. Be on the alert for the symptoms of clots in different parts of the body.
Sitting Still Too Long: Signs of DVT
There’s a reason in-flight magazines have a section with stretches and other movements you can do in your airline seat. Sitting in one position for hours can be a risk factor for a blood clot that forms in a major vein of the leg, groin or arm. This type of clot is called a DVT.
Look for the signs of DVT:
- Swelling, especially in the ankle, foot or arm
- Pain or tenderness that’s not from an injury, often in the calf or thigh
- Skin that is warm to the touch
- Skin that is red or a strange color
If you have these signs or warnings, call your doctor as soon as possible.
In the Lungs: Symptoms of PE
A blood clot can travel from where it formed in a leg or arm vein and go through the heart to the lungs. There it becomes wedged, blocking blood flow. This is called a PE. It can be very dangerous.
Signs of PE:
- Problems breathing
- Sharp chest pain that gets worse when you lay down
- Chest pain that is worse when you take a deep breath
- Coughing, with or without blood
- Faster or not normal heartbeat
Seek immediate care if you have these signs.
What Can You Do to Prevent VTE?
VTEs can happen without any symptoms or other warning signs. So the best way to protect yourself from blood clots is to prevent them. Understanding the risk factors and taking the right steps to lower them can help.
Know Your Risk
Broad risk factors for VTE include:
- Sitting still in the same position for long periods, like when traveling by plane or car
- A long hospital stay
- Major surgery, especially knee, hip or belly
- Trauma, like from a car crash
- Injury, like a broken bone (that hurts a vein)
- Cancer and cancer treatments
- Some types of birth control/hormones with estrogen
- Pregnancy (and continuing six weeks after the baby is born)
- Family history of blood clots
- Being overweight
- Being confined to a bed
- Being 55 or older
- Long-term health problems, like heart and lung health issues or diabetes
Your doctor can help you figure out if you’re at risk.
Lower Your Risk
Do what you can to lower the risk factors you can control, like losing weight and stopping smoking. Talk to your doctor about how you can lower your risk.
And if you’re going to be in a situation that puts you at risk for blood clots, these tips from the Mayo Clinic may help:
- Drink plenty of fluids. Water is best. Dehydration may add to the development of blood clots. Avoid alcohol, which leads to fluid loss.
- Take a break from too much sitting. If you’re in a plane or train, get up and move around the cabin each hour. If you’re traveling by car, stop every hour or so and walk around the car. Do some deep knee bends.
- While you’re sitting, wiggle in your seat. Try bending your ankles every 15 to 30 minutes. Flex your calves and thighs.
- Wear support stockings.
Stop them before they start.
Blood clots are among the most preventable types of blood conditions. If you think you may be at risk of blood clots because of your family history or lifestyle, talk with your doctor. Be sure to let your doctor know about all medicines you’re taking and any family history of blood clotting disorders.
Sources: Know the Facts: Know Thrombosis, Know Thrombosis: Think Venous Thromboembolism, Know Thrombosis: Think Deep Vein Thrombosis, Know Thrombosis: Think Pulmonary Embolism, World Thrombosis Day, 2019; Pulmonary embolism, Mayo Clinic, 2018; Blood Clots, American Society of Hematology; Your Guide to Preventing and Treating Blood Clots, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017