It's happened to you at least a few times in your jet-setting career. But you might have never known why it was happening. So allow us to break it down for you.
We're talking about the phenomenon of swollen ankles. Typically, even a healthy, young person might see at least a little bit of foot and ankle swelling after a long flight. The swelling, also known as edema, happens because of your inactivity while in the air. Thanks to gravity, the blood in your veins pools in your feet while you've got them firmly planted on the ground — as the cramped quarters of coach class leave little room for you to move them anywhere else, and certainly not to elevate them.
So yes, you guessed it: Those folks in first class, with the cushy flat-bed seats, are not experiencing the same problem while they're sipping their bottomless champagne. When they recline, and raise their feet to approximately the same level as their hearts, the blood doesn't pool, and the swelling doesn't occur.
So can this be a serious enough issue to dissuade you from, say, hopping on the longest flight possible? In typical cases, no. It's usually very harmless, unless you have existing health concerns such as increased risk for blood clots; this could also be a side effect of medication, or a result of surgery. In any increased-risk cases, you might benefit from wearing compression socks. They're not cute, but they serve the added bonus of separating your feet from the grimy floor.
Definitely take note of swelling that persists after you land and have been active again for a while. If it does, you should consider seeing a doctor because you could be at risk for a deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT for short. Specifically, if only one leg remains swollen, seek medical advice.
The Mayo Clinic lists a few ways that to manage the phenomenon of swelling in flight: Try flexing and extending your legs and feet often, taking a walk up and down the aisle, avoid crossing your legs, and drink plenty of fluids — but avoid alcohol.
It's also good to keep in mind that eating salty foods can cause you to retain fluids. So the day before and day of your flight, try to eat a lower-sodium diet.
And if you really want to make sure you don't have swollen feet, you can bring your feet up to your seat and give yourself a little massage every so often to get the blood circulating. Just mind your neighbors and your manners as much as possible in those cattle-like conditions.
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