IBS-D Travel Tips

Medically Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on February 02, 2016
4 min read

Whether you’re planning a business trip to Boston or a fun family getaway to the beach, travel always involves a little anxiety.

What if my flight’s delayed and I miss the connection?

Will there be any good restaurants within walking distance of my hotel?

But if you have irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D), travel can be so disruptive to your health, you may find yourself nixing the getaway altogether and choosing a staycation instead.

With some careful planning, however, you can still enjoy the getaway of your dreams.

IBS-D is oversensitivity of the nerves and muscles in the intestines that, in addition to diarrhea, can cause cramps, gassiness, bloating, and constipation. For those with it, every aspect of travel can cause trouble.

“My anxiety of traveling stems from all of the ‘what ifs,’ and the feeling of being trapped and not being able to easily get home to my bathroom,” says Zlata Gladunov, a veteran of IBS-D in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. “I never know how my stomach will behave.”

“Travel can be very disruptive for people with IBS for several reasons,” says Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, a gastroenterologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “First of all, the stress associated with catching with your flight and getting to the hotel can make your symptoms worse. But also being away from your usual place of eating and going to the bathroom can disrupt the bowels.

“Bowels don’t like surprises, and not only are you introducing new foods, but you might be eating at unusual times, staying out late, and eating later than usual.”

There are some ways to tame your symptoms when you travel:

  1. Plan your flight or your driving route wisely. When booking your flight, choose a row close to the restroom -- and make sure you have an aisle seat so you don’t have to disturb a snoozing neighbor every time you get up to use it. Build in extra time to arrive at the airport early enough to use the bathroom before you board. If you’re driving a long distance, use the Internet to map out where all the rest areas are along your route. 
  2. Don’t leave yourself to the mercy of the snack machines: Pick a hotel that offers a mini-fridge in the room. Before you book it, Lebwohl suggests you see if there is a grocery store nearby so you can pick up foods that don’t trigger your symptoms.

“I travel a lot for work, and it can sometimes be a challenge to find the food that works for me,” says Judy Morgan, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Woodstown, NJ. “But I find that even at a roadside mini-mart, I can usually find a few pieces of fresh fruit and some hard-boiled eggs, and if there is a restaurant with a salad bar, I can make a salad with the unprocessed, non-dairy, sugar-free foods that I can eat.”

Web sites such as Chowhound, OpenTable, and Yelp can show you all your dining options before you arrive.

  1. Eat regular, small meals. People with IBS-D are sometimes tempted to skip meals when they’re traveling. It’s better for you to eat small, healthy meals. Avoid fatty food and fast food, which can trigger symptoms, says John Dumot, DO, the director of the Digestive Health Institute in Cleveland, OH. 
  2. Pack an emergency bag to keep with you. Lebwohl says you should have non-perishable, high-fiber snacks like granola bars and medicine like Imodium with you in a small carry-on bag. You may also want to throw in an extra change of underwear and some toilet tissue or wipes. Even if you don’t need it, just knowing it’s there can lower your stress.
  3. Don’t forget to drink up. Keep a bottle of water with you to stay hydrated, recommends Dumot. “There’s no evidence that avoiding beverages will keep you from having loose stools, and if you become dehydrated, that can lead to other problems.”

He says you should stick to water, since carbonation and artificial sweeteners can aggravate your symptoms.

  1. Keep breakfast consistent. Since your bowels don’t love surprises, it can be helpful to start the day the same way you always do at home, Lebwohl says.

“If you have yogurt every morning at home, then see if you can keep some in your mini-fridge and continue to have that for breakfast on vacation. Your gut will appreciate it.”

  1. Take a break to relax. Research has shown that relaxation techniques can help calm your IBS-D by lowering the body’s stress response. Hypnosis using progressive relaxation and then picturing soothing imagery was found to be one of the most effective relaxation strategies.

Ask your doctor for a referral to a certified hypnotherapist, or look into self-hypnosis programs available for download.

  1. Learn four important words: Before you travel to any foreign country, be sure you learn how to say, “Where is the restroom?” And because some countries use pay toilets, always be sure to carry extra change with you.