Traveling with Diabetes: How to Plan for a Healthier Trip

Are you one of the millions of people in the U.S. with diabetes? If you are, that doesn’t mean you can’t travel! Yes, it’s true—changes in meal patterns, activity levels, and time zones can affect your blood sugar levels, but with some good planning, your trip can still be safe, fun, and hassle-free.  Whether you’re hitting the road or taking a plane, here are some key reminders from our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michelle Wheeler, to make traveling with diabetes easier:

See Your Doctor: At least four-six weeks before your trip, make an appointment with your primary care physician (PCP) to discuss your travel plans and check your ABC numbers. Show your physician your itinerary and discuss time zone changes, arrival and departure times, and flight duration to determine whether you need a change in your pill or insulin regimen. (Taking insulin on the plane? Before using a syringe in flight, remove and replace the plunger to allow pressure equalization.) If you’re traveling abroad, your doctor will most likely refer you to a travel medicine specialist to verify any destination-specific vaccines that you’ll need. Make sure these vaccines are administered at least a month before you leave—that way, if you have any adverse reactions, you’ll have time to recover before your trip.

While you’re with your doctor, ask him or her for a letter that explains how your diabetes is treated (diabetes pills, insulin shots, etc.), all medications and equipment you need to manage it (i.e., insulin, syringes, etc.) as well as any allergies to foods or medications. In addition to the letter, you’ll also want to ask your doctor for a prescription just in case you lose or run out of any of your medications while you’re gone.

International travelers take note: prescription laws vary by country, so getting a prescription on foreign soil isn’t always as simple as it sounds. While the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate can be a helpful resource in these situations, the simplest and fastest way to get your prescriptions replaced is by contacting your travel assistance company.  And speaking of prescriptions—insulin in other countries comes in different strengths, so in general, you should stick with the exact brand and formulation of insulin that was prescribed to you by your doctor.

Bring the Right Snacks: No matter what form of diabetes you have, you need something to curb your hunger without throwing off your blood sugar levels. Just like your meals, your snacks should have a combination of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.  Some travel-friendly snacks for diabetics include: fruit and cheese (choose fruits lower in natural sugars, such as berries, melon, and apples); nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts and cashews are packed full of protein and fiber, and the fats they contain are the type that can decrease your risk of heart disease and lower your cholesterol), a small sandwich with nitrate-free lunch meat on whole-wheat bread, or whole-wheat crackers with natural peanut butter.  Also, don’t forget to bring hard candies or glucose tablets to treat low blood glucose if needed. Also, if you have a long-haul flight and no diabetic-friendly food is offered onboard (you didn’t forget to call the airline beforehand, right?), don’t be afraid to bring a meal on board yourself. Believe it or not, airport terminals are ramping up healthy offerings with high-end fresh foods and even organic selections. For example, Starbucks sells a “protein box,” which comes with a hardboiled egg, nut butter and fresh fruit. Even fast food chains like McDonald’s offer healthier options like grilled chicken salads and fresh fruit.

Pack with Care: When it comes to medication, pack twice the amount that you think you’ll you need just in case you experience any delays. If you’re flying, be sure to put all of your medications and supplies in your carry-on bags just in case your luggage goes MIA. Play it safe and keep all your medications and devices clearly marked with the preprinted pharmacy labels to avoid any confusion at the airport. Back-up medication should also be kept in your carry-on because checked baggage can be exposed to extreme cold or heat that could spoil insulin (similar rules apply for road trips—don’t store your insulin in the glove compartment or trunk of your car!). If you’re worried about keeping your insulin cool, invest in a cooling travel pack or an insulated bag with some cold packs. The American Diabetes Association also suggests packing a diabetes travel emergency kit—depending on how you take care of your diabetes, this could include all oral medications; insulin, insulin delivery supplies, glucose meter, extra batteries for glucose meter and/or insulin pump, lancing device and lancets, test strips, ketone strips, and a quick-acting source of glucose. You may also want to include a glucagon emergency kit and other medications and supplies, such as anti-diarrheal medication, antibiotic ointment and anti-nausea drugs. To get started, follow our advice for building your own DIY Traveler’s First Aid Kit and add your diabetes supplies and medications to the checklist.

Know Your Rights: Good news—the American Diabetes Association continues to advocate for the rights of travelers with diabetes and works closely with the TSA to ensure that you have access to your supplies and equipment at all times. To makes things easier, when you first arrive at the security checkpoint, tell the TSA officer that you have diabetes and show him or her the letter from your doctor as well as your medical ID.* Worried about bringing your liquids and gels through security? The TSA allows you to take your insulin, other medications such as Smylin, Byetta, and Glucagon, and other liquids and gels, including juice and cake gel, through security checkpoints, even if they are greater than 3.4 ounces. Do you wear an insulin pump? No problem! You can be screened without disconnecting from it and you can request pat down in lieu of imaging technology.  Don’t want your diabetes supplies going through the x-ray baggage scanner? Not to worry—none of your diabetes supplies need to go through it. To learn more, read the American Diabetes Association’s detailed fact sheet: Air Travel and Diabetes.

* A medical ID not only makes getting through airport security easier, but in the event of a severe medical emergency, it can provide critical information about your health status to emergency medical personnel (they are trained to look for a medical ID when they are caring for someone who can’t speak for themselves).

Prepare for an Emergency:  Even if you take the proper health steps, sometimes you can still experience a medical issue. This is why you need travel emergency support through a firm like On Call in case of an emergency. If you do happen to get sick, we’ll assist with locating a qualified physician, hospital or pharmacy. If you lose or run out of your prescription, there’s replacement assistance too. On Call can assist you 24/7 with other travel mishaps ranging from lost passportsmissing baggagelegal assistance, and even rescheduling travel plans if flights are cancelled or postponed. Contact us today to learn more.

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For over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.