Travel can be stressful for anyone. If you’re taking insulin to control your diabetes, taking a trip has other challenges.
Those roadblocks shouldn’t keep you from visiting relatives, seeing new places, or enjoying the journey. The poet Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake.”
So if you’re taking insulin, go. Get out. See the world.
Just keep a few things in mind.
Prepare to Go There
“Think ahead and be prepared,” says Kellie Antinori-Lent, a registered nurse at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Shadyside Hospital. “There’s so many times that I’ve had patients call me and say, ‘Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow for a trip, and I don’t have this or I don’t have that.’ And then you’re scrambling ... and that puts you at risk. So, definitely, think ahead.”
Here are your steps:
Know what you need to manage your diabetes: Insulin, glucose gel, glucose tablets, your blood glucose monitor. Test strips. Syringes. Insulin pens. If you use an insulin pump, take an extra battery. You know what you need to keep your glucose levels where they should be.
Take more than you think you need: Overpack your diabetes supplies, even if you’re taking a short trip. What if your flight is delayed? What if your luggage gets lost? What if your car gets a flat tire?
“We always tell people to bring twice as many supplies as they think they’ll need. That’s very important,” says Pamela Allweiss, MD, a medical officer for the CDC. “I’m talking about insulin or pills or supplies or strips or whatever. And it’s always good to take the same type of insulin that you normally use.”
Get it together: You don’t want your insulin in one bag and your blood glucose monitor in another. You don’t want glucose tablets mixed in with another medicine. If you snack on, say, granola bars or peanut butter crackers once in a while to keep your blood sugar up, put them in the same place as the rest of your diabetes stuff.
And keep it with you: Don’t keep it in the trunk of your car. Temperatures could affect the medicine. And if you need your insulin quickly, you don’t want to be digging under six suitcases and that box of beach toys.
“Have a little handy-dandy bag with your immediate supplies at hand. That’s one of the first things,” Allweiss says.
If you’re flying, never put your diabetes supplies in a checked bag. Take them onboard, in a carry-on, in its own separate bag. Or even as its own carry-on. And don’t stick it in the overhead bin in case you need something quickly.
A note about your carry-on: Tell the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials at the airport what you’re carrying. Have them hand check your bag. If you’re using an insulin pump, have them pat you down if you don’t want to go through the metal detector.
Test, Test, Test
Time-zone changes. Different foods. More food. Less food. Meals at different times of the day. Snacks when you don’t normally have them. A change in exercise habits (for better or worse). A lack of sleep. All can affect your blood glucose levels.
So don’t rely on how you feel. Keep that blood glucose monitor nearby, and test often.
You may have to adjust when you take your insulin, or how often, or maybe even the type of insulin. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or a diabetes educator before you hit the trail.
Take Care of Yourself
Anyone with diabetes knows that you have to watch your feet. So wear sandals or sneakers on the beach. Never go barefoot. If your feet swell -- that sometimes happens during flights, especially -- think about compression socks. Move your ankles. Point your toes. That helps. And after a long day on your feet, check for blisters or other injuries.
Get your exercise in while you’re away from home, too. And if you need to rest after a long day sometimes vacations can be sooo exhausting -- listen to your body. Take it easy.
Lastly, avoid overeating or drinking too much alcohol. You might be on vacation, but your diabetes isn’t.
Some Final Tips
Bring along a note from your doctor and a written prescription for insulin or other medicine in case you need more while you’re away. Make sure everything’s labeled, too, with the original label, if possible.
Ask the manufacturer of your insulin pump for a backup. Some provide an extra one for customers who are traveling.
If you’re traveling to a country where a different language is spoken, learn how to say a few key phrases like, “I’m a diabetic,” “sugar,” and “orange juice, please.”
If you’re expecting a meal on a plane, don’t expect it to fit into your normal diet. Either get with the airline ahead of time to get a meal designed for those with diabetes -- check the carrier’s web site for details -- or make sure you bring food with you.
Introduce yourself to a flight attendant. If during the flight you need some snacks to deal with dropping blood glucose levels, the flight crew often can provide juice or something else to help.
If you have to use insulin on a plane, be careful. The pressurized cabin could affect the air in the syringe, too. Make sure there are no air bubbles before your inject.
Find a couple of doctors who treat diabetes in the area where you’re traveling. If you’re going abroad, you might want to make sure they speak your language.