Swelling When Traveling? Here’s Why It Happens + What to Do

by Sarah Peterson

Jet lag, bloating, and a reduced immune system are all unfortunate but well-known side effects of travel. 

But there’s another common and equally annoying side effect: swelling.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you’ve likely been a victim of swelling at some point. Swollen feet after a long flight, swollen face after the loss of sleep, or swollen fingers from the heat of a tropical destination have probably happened to you before.

Swelling happens to us all differently, and it can be hard to predict when and where it will happen. This article will cover why swelling when traveling happens and 10 ways to prevent or treat it on your next trip.

Article Guide

Why Does Swelling Happen When You Travel?

Swelling, also called edema, happens when fluids in the body pool in certain areas, causing them to become temporarily larger. 

Sometimes swelling is mild and may go away on it’s own in a few hours. Other times it can be uncomfortable and lead to other problems. 

While swelling can happen to the body anytime, traveling puts your body through specific conditions that trigger it.

To prevent swelling, we need to understand why it happens when we travel. These are the main travel related causes of swelling in the body. 

#1. Swelling from Flying

Swelling is most common for travelers when they are flying. 

Those long hours spent sitting in your cabin chair causes blood to pool into your feet and ankles, also known as gravitational edema. 

It happens when you are in an upright position for a long time, but aren’t moving. 

The result is swollen feet that may even make wearing shoes uncomfortable. 

The lower air pressure and humidity inflight also promotes dehydration, which causes your body to retain water and swell. 

#2. Your Body Adjusting to a Sudden Change in Climate

Another common cause for swelling while traveling is that your body has to adjust to a sudden change in temperature and climate. 

If you aren’t used to hot or humid climates, or you’re flying from winter into a tropical place, swelling in the limbs can happen. 

It can affect any body part, from the face, hands, feet, arms or legs to your fingers and toes. This explains why so many travelers find it difficult to remove their rings during and after a trip to a warm-weather destination.

#3. Changes in Diet from Travel

One of the challenges of travel (and why FLIGHTFUD exists!) is that access to high-quality, healthy foods is so limited in airports and on most flights. 

While most airlines are improving their food options, historically, airplane food is known to be sodium-filled and made from unhealthy ingredients that can make you bloated and feel swollen in both the face and tummy.

Most people eat more healthfully at home then they do when traveling partially because of the lack of access to nutrient-rich foods. So your diet when you’re going places tends to differ from your normal eating patterns. 

This can cause swelling as your digestive system and cells attempt to deal with the onslaught of nutrient-depleted, carbohydrate-heavy travel options.

Plus, if the cuisine in your destination is saltier or heavier than your usual diet, your body will retain water and the dreaded face swelling can happen. 

The Effects of Swelling on Your Body and Your Health

Generally, swelling is harmless and not life-threatening. 

Most travelers and frequent flyers will experience mild swelling at some point on their travels. Once relieved, they can go on enjoying their trip as usual. 

But sometimes swelling can lead to other issues. 

Foot and ankle swelling can make wearing your shoes unbearable, and in some cases it can be uncomfortable to walk for days.

In extreme cases, the swelling can become a serious condition. 

If swelling doesn’t go down within a few days after a flight, you seek medical attention. In rare cases, it can even lead to blood clotting. Thankfully, this is very rare and there are loads of ways you can prevent swelling from becoming serious, or from happening at all.

How to Prevent Swelling When Traveling

The best way to deal with swelling is to avoid it in the first place. 

Here are some key tips on how to lower your chances of experiencing this unfavorable part of travel.

#1. Stay Hydrated

Cabin air on your flight is dryer than the Sahara desert, because it needs to be. 

The dry air can lead to dehydration than you’d think. 

Among keeping other crucial bodily processes running smoothly, water is vital to keeping your blood circulation from slowing, which is a culprit of swelling. 

Since dehydration is such a prevalent travel side-effect that leads to so many other impaired bodily processes and symptoms, it’s crucial to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water before and during your flight. 

This is why we developed Flight Elixir as a drink mix. We could have made it in any other form, but we wanted to encourage travelers to stay hydrated. 

Ideally, you’ll drink the equivalent of 1, 8-oz glass of water for each in-flight hour. 

Once in your destination, keep your Travel Water Bottle on hand so you can stay hydrated and can track how much water you’re drinking.

#2. Wear Loose Clothing

Besides being incredibly uncomfortable, wearing tight clothing, especially jeans or anything that constricts your mid-section, can impair blood circulation which is necessary for keeping fluids flowing in your body and preventing swelling. 

This can lead to swelling in the lower body. 

Skip the jeans and restrictive clothing and opt for joggers, leggings, or loose-fitting pants to avoid this. Tight shoes and socks should be avoided as well.

#3. Avoid Salty Food

Airplane food is notorious for being salty and just not very healthy overall. 

You don’t have to go on a food strike while you fly, but it’s wise to avoid stopping at the convenience store on your way through the airport to grab even more salty snacks. In flight, this means avoiding the peanuts, chips, and pretzels that are commonly given on-board. 

While in your destination, it may be harder to say no to the cuisine. After all, a big part of travel is trying new food! But it does pay to be mindful of what you eat, and try to avoid mindlessly snacking.

#4. Drink Alcohol Wisely

One of the best parts about flying is that you can sit back, relax, and order a drink. And we’re realistic. We’re not going to tell you to avoid the inflight indulgences. 

Just be aware that alcohol dehydrates your body, which is the main reason you might experience a headache when you overindulge the night before. In response, your body may also react by retaining fluids. 

Alcohol depresses the nervous system as well, which can make you more likely to fall asleep in a bad sitting position in-flight after a few drinks, which may cause ankle and foot swelling. 

So while we’re not saying you have to skip the wine, definitely consume your spirits wisely inflight (and in general). 

Drink in moderation, and drink an extra glass of water for each drink. 

It doesn’t hurt to ensure you’re drinking your Flight Elixir as well; with coconut water crystals for electrolytes and vitamins to support your body while you travel, we’ve stacked it with the ingredients you need to help you balance your body.

#5. Come Prepared

Travel can be hard on the body. It promotes dehydration, impairs circulation and exposes you to pollutants which have negative health impacts. 

Boost your body’s immunity and function by bringing your own micronutrient supplements.

We’ve created our own all-in-one Flight Elixir made to support the body’s specific needs during travel, with ingredients such as papaya for bloating and indigestion and goji berry, which dilate blood vessels promoting optimal circulation and blood flow.

Another supplement to consider bringing is probiotics, which promote gut health. This will help lessen the impacts of swelling from the foreign food. Omega-3 is also known to be an effective anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling and pain.

Where Does Swelling Happen When Traveling?

Swelling can happen anywhere on the body depending on the cause. 

Flying usually leads to swelling in the ankles and feet, while a new travel diet can lead to swelling in the stomach and face. If the weather or change in climate is the cause of swelling, it can happen anywhere in the body, from the neck, limbs, or even hands.

The Best Ways to Relieve Swelling When Traveling

If you do experience swelling during your travels, there are a few ways to find relief quickly. Here are some key tips on what to do if you start to swell.

#1. Stretch and Change Positions 

If you feel your ankles and feet swelling in the airplane cabin, try to stretch it out before it gets worse. 

Start by rolling your ankle around in a circular motion, extend your legs and stretch, then change positions. 

It also helps to continue changing positions and stretching frequently until landing. This keeps blood circulation up, and prevents it from pooling into the lower body again.

#2. Go for Walks in the Airplane Cabin

If you feel the onset of swelling coming, get up and go for a walk. 

Even in the flight cabin when there’s limited space, just going for a short walk to the bathroom or down the aisle and back will help. 

Walking helps to bring back proper blood circulation, which stops the swelling from getting worse.

#3. Do Cardio

If you find yourself swelling during your trip because of hot weather or from the foreign cuisine, opt for some cardio. 

Swimming is a great counter to swelling, so is hiking and jogging. 

If the swelling is too painful to do those, going for a brisk walk also works. Exercise helps improve blood flow giving relief from swelling. Plus, the salt your body loses from sweating helps to release excess fluids your body may be holding onto.

#4. Elevate the Limbs

Elevating the swollen body parts will help drain the extra fluid pooled into that area. 

If possible, elevate the swollen limb above the heart, on a chair or cushion in bed. If swelling persists, you can elevate the limb overnight while sleeping.

#5. Use Compression Socks

If you are a frequent flyer who often experiences swelling, it may be worth it to get compression socks. 

These help to both prevent and relieve swelling. If you find your feet and ankle swelling mid-flight, slip on the compression socks and they’ll safely help to push the extra fluid out of the ankle and foot.


Sarah Peterson
@sarah
Sarah Peterson
@sarah

Sarah Peterson is the co-founder and head of marketing at FLIGHTFŪD. She's a travel health expert and after having visited 20+ countries as a digital nomad and flying every 4-6 weeks for business, she became passionate about empowering others to protect their bodies on the go.


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