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Why Do Feet Swell on Airplanes? (9 Remedies)

On a long flight, you may be tempted to kick your feet up and relax, but you should resist the urge – and not just to spare the passenger in the seat in front you from accidentally kicking them. Your feet can swell up while on a plane – but why?

Whether you call them “Airplane Cankles” or “Jet Leg” or whatever else, this phenomenon occurs in large part because sitting for a long time (like, say, on a long flight) can cause blood to pool in your legs’ veins. Thankfully, annoying as this is, there are ways of combating it.

1. Be Careful About Your Diet

You know the old saying that fatty foods go “straight to your thighs?” Well, aim a bit lower, swap fatty for salty foods, and you have the idea. Salty foods can cause you to retain water, which in turn can cause your feet to swell up on flights.

2. Drink Water

It’s especially important to avoid salty foods retaining excess water given that you should already drink a fair amount of water the day before your trip. Passengers often underestimate the amount of water they should drink before a trip.

That’s not helped by the fact that airports have a tendency to overprice everything, including water, and unless you constantly ring the flight attendants for more, you’ll be served beverages on a plane only very occasionally.

As a result, people can become dehydrated while flying. This, in combination with the pressure of the air cabin and its dry nature, can cause your blood to thicken and not flow as freely as normal, which can cause it to collect in your legs and feet, causing swelling.

3. Walk Around

Inside the spacious 787 Dreamliner cabin
Jetstar Inside the spacious 787 Dreamliner cabin

If blood is pooling in your legs’ veins and feet because you’re sitting down for a long stretch of time, what’s the easiest way to solve that? Stop sitting down and get up and walk, of course!

While there are rules about when you can walk on a plane (mind the “Fasten Seatbelt” line), getting up and walking around can do wonders for your blood circulation and thus help you stop the swelling.

4. Try Flight Socks

As anyone who has had to deal with another annoying flight problem, ears popping, knows all too well, airplane cabins are pressurized. Just as that extra pressure can wreak havoc on your eardrums, it can also help cause your feet to swell.

You thus need to find ways to combat this extra pressure from top to bottom. Chewing gum won’t help your feet as they may your eardrums, so you’ll need to find other ways of easing the pressure on your feet, and flight-friendly compression socks can be a big winner here.

There actually several kinds of compression socks you can employ to help ease foot swelling on flights, with three of the most popular varieties being graduated compression socks, anti-embolism socks, and nonmedical support hosiery, each of which have their own pros and cons.

For example, graduated compression socks apply pressure to your ankles and apply pressure from them upward, tapering off the higher they go. These socks are often custom-fit, requiring a prescription and professional assistance in properly fitting them.

If you can get them, however, they can make a big difference.

By contrast, nonmedical support hosiery is available in stores, does not require a custom fit or prescription, and can thus be a lot more accessible.

Finally, anti-embolism socks, as the name would suggest, are designed to combat the risk of deep vein thrombosis. These socks are often best for those with limited mobility, and like graduated compression socks they require a prescription.

5. Flight Duration Matters

Not all flights last long enough for foot swelling to be a problem. If you are just hopping over the English Channel from London to Paris, there’s a greater chance you should be fine. For long distance flights such as London to Los Angeles, however, foot swelling is a bigger issue.

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Read: How to survive long flights in economy class

6. Flex Your Muscles

Even if you can’t or don’t want to get up and walk around the cabin a bit, you can still flex your muscles to get the blood pumping and ease the swelling. 

Remember, the idea is to stop the blood from coagulating around your ankles and feet due to inactivity, so extending your feet a bit and flexing your ankles or thighs can help.

7. Where You Sit Matters

If you suffer from swelling feet while sitting on a plane, the last thing you want is to make that worse by being all cramped up in the corner. Instead, you’ll want to try and book an aisle seat whenever possible so as to allow you to spread out and flex a bit.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean you need to “manspread” or splay yourself out all over the cabin. A little bit of extra legroom can go a long way here.

Another covert way you can increase your space and not feel so cramped is to store your luggage in the overhead compartments. The more you press your bags against your legs and body, the more that will result in blood being cut off and all those aforementioned circulation and swelling problems increasing.

8. Don’t Cross Your Legs

On a long flight, we have a way of wanting to shift positions, as alluded to above. At a certain point, you may get tired of having your legs dangling downward and want to curl them up in a comfier legs-crossed position, especially if that’s your natural sitting preference.

However, if you do so, it should be brief, and you should stop the second you feel any soreness. Sitting cross-legged combined with cabin air pressure can cause your leg and foot swelling problems to magnify.

9. Keep Your Feet Elevated

inflatable foot rest
Editorial Team Inflatable foot rest

The condition of feet swelling on airplanes is sometimes referred to as gravitational oedema. From that and everything said above, you can guess that gravity visa vi your blood and cabin pressure is a big component of the condition.

Therefore, you should do whatever you can to keep your feet elevated. This can help big-time with your circulation and decrease the chances of swelling.

For this purpose inflatable of hammock footrests are great. Check if these are allowed on the airline you’re flying with first, though.

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