Deep Vein Thrombosis in Older Adults

When a Blood Clot is on the Move

Older woman looking at ipad
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Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that partially or completely blocks a large vein, usually in the leg. Adults over the age of 60 are at greatest risk — and not just during air travel — according to the US National Institutes of Health. If a blood clot breaks off and travels through the circulatory system, it can block blood flow and cause tissue or organ damage.

While a blood clot (embolism) can lodge in the brain or heart, such clots most commonly block an artery leading to the lungs, causing what's known as a pulmonary embolism.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that as many as 600,000 Americans suffer from deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism each year and that 60,000-100,000 people die as a result.

Here's what you need to know about deep vein thrombosis, and how this potentially life-threatening problem is treated.

What causes deep vein thrombosis?

Clots can form when blood flow is altered or slowed for some reason in one of the large veins of the body. You're more susceptible to a blood clot if you have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • You're older than 40 years of age (risk increases as age increases)
  • You've recently had major surgery
  • You have limited mobility which slows down the rate of blood flow
  • You have a family history of deep-vein blood clots
  • You are overweight or obese
  • You are a smoker
  • You're taking hormonal contraceptive therapy (birth control pills)
  • You have one of a number of chronic conditions like heart disease or cancer

    Your chances of having a blood clot increase if you are stationary for longer than four hours at a stretch, particularly if you also have any of the problems or conditions listed above.

    What are the symptoms of deep vein thrombosis? 

    As many as half of the people who suffer a blood clot don't realize they have one, report the CDC.

    Those who have symptoms typically experience them in the affected leg, on one side of the body. Symptoms include:

    • Pain or tenderness in the leg (perhaps only while walking or standing)
    • Swelling in the affected area
    • Redness or discoloration of the skin on the leg

    Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism:

    Many people have no symptoms until the clot has moved to the lungs. Signs of a pulmonary embolism include:

    • Difficulty breathing
    • Chest pain, especially when taking a deep breath
    • Rapid heart beat
    • Sudden onset cough
    • Coughing up blood
    • Fainting

    If you have any of these symptoms, especially after a long flight or series of flights, seek emergency attention as quickly as possible.

    • For more information on the risk of DVT in heart patients, read this article.

    How is a blood clot diagnosed?

    Deep vein thrombosis in the leg can be diagnosed with a physical exam, during which a physician will check the limb for redness or swelling. An ultrasound exam will likely be conducted to determine the location and size of the clot.

    How is a blood clot treated?

    Treatment is aimed at keeping the clot from getting any bigger, or traveling to another part of the body. Blood thinners will be administered and may be prescribed for a number of months, or indefinitely.

    Treatment of deep vein thrombosis is usually successful if detected early. If left untreated, it can be fatal. Chronic pain and swelling can result if the thrombosis causes damage to the vein.

    How can I avoid a deep-vein clot?

    Reduce the risk factors within your control: if you smoke, stop, and maintain a healthy weight.

    The CDC report that long-distance travel lasting longer than four hours doubles the chance of developing deep vein thrombosis, compared with not traveling. The risk remains higher for the two months following travel.

    If you're planning a long-distance journey — by air, train, bus or car — make sure you move and stretch your legs often while sitting.

    Get up and walk down the aisle, to keep your blood moving. If you're traveling by car, stop about once an hour to stretch your legs and walk around for a few minutes. If you have had a clot in the past, let your doctor know of your travel plans. You may be prescribed a blood thinner before your trip. Wear compression socks or stockings to improve blood circulation if your health-care provider recommends them.


    Are You at Risk for Deep Vein Thrombosis? US Centers for Disease Control Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 21, 2013.

    Deep Vein Thrombosis. Transport Canada Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 21, 2013.

    Deep Vein Thrombosis. US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 21, 2013.

    Deep Venous Thrombosis. US National Institutes of Health Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 21, 2013.