October 13 is World Thrombosis Day, observed around the world to raise awareness of the dangers of blood clots in people of all ages. Around the world, a person dies every 6 minutes from a blood clot, and adults over 60 are at the greatest risk falling prey to this silent killer. Blood clots in the lungs, brain and legs affect nearly 600,000 Americans each year, and 10 to 15 percent of those die each year. While air travel is the most well-known risk factor, there are several other risk factors that can put even healthy adults in the picture for one of the variations of venous thromboembolism (VTE). Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones need to know the risk factors, symptoms, and prevention of dangerous blood clots.
There are two main forms of VTE: deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). DVT is when a blood clot partially or totally obstructs a large vein anywhere in the body. DVT occurs most commonly in the leg, and is often at work on long airplane flights. Pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries leading to the lungs. A blood clot partially blocking any vein or artery is damaging, but when the clot breaks off and travels through the circulatory system, it can cause brain, tissue or organ damage. Air travel is the riskiest environment for developing clots, for people of any age, but nearly half the people who develop a blood clot don’t realize they have one, according to the CDC.
Many people are at risk for thrombosis, even when not flying. Per the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the risk factors for both DVT and PE include:
- “Conditions or factors that make your blood thicker or more likely to clot than normal. Some inherited blood disorders (such as factor V Leiden) will do this. Hormone therapy or birth control pills also increase the risk of clotting.
- Injury to a deep vein from surgery, a broken bone, or other trauma.
- Slow blood flow in a deep vein due to lack of movement. This may occur after surgery, if you’re ill and in bed for a long time, or if you’re traveling for a long time.
- Pregnancy and the first 6 weeks after giving birth.
- Recent or ongoing treatment for cancer.
- A central venous catheter. This is a tube placed in a vein to allow easy access to the bloodstream for medical treatment.
- Older age. Being older than 60 is a risk factor for DVT, although DVT can occur at any age.
- Being overweight or obese.”
How do you know if you’re experiencing a blood clot? Alarmingly, only half of the people who have DVT or PE show any signs or symptoms in the leg or lung, respectively. Adults under 60 are particularly vulnerable to this, because blood clots are associated with seniors, even though long distance travel, genetic conditions, estrogen-based medication, and pregnancy are equally dangerous risk factors. Signs to watch for in the legs are: swelling of the whole limb or along a vein, pain or tenderness when standing or walking, increased warmth of the swollen or painful area, and red or discolored skin. Pulmonary embolism, deep vein clots in the lung, reveal themselves more subtly, with symptoms that include: mysterious shortness of breath, pain when breathing deeply, chest pain, fainting, rapid heartbeat, and coughed-up blood. Situations like long air flights, hospitalization, or long periods of inactive repose, can exacerbate these risk factors.
How can you prevent blood clots from developing, and best avoid the alarming risks associated with blockage? First, quit smoking, and maintain a healthy weight. Then, take practical preventive measures like making time to move and stretch regularly when traveling in confined spaces, sitting with legs uncrossed, and wearing compression socks or stockings. If you fall into any of the high-risk categories, then asking your primary care physician to follow up on any symptoms is crucial. Treating either DVT or PE as early as possible, with blood thinners, is the best way to keep small clots from growing larger, or from breaking off and moving around the body. Permanent damage to veins, arteries, organs and tissue can result from untreated clots.
Seniors, caregivers and home care aides should know that although dangerous blood clots can strike at any age, they are preventable with simple precautions and medication.