Have Diabetes, Will Travel

Diabetes patients can travel safely with careful planning and preparation

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Holidays and vacations mean friends, family, food and travel. For those who have diabetes, however, it’s not just a matter of jumping in the car and going.

Traveling can disrupt meal, rest and exercise routines, all of which can make it harder to manage diabetes — a disease in which the body doesn't secrete insulin or becomes less sensitive to it. Insulin is the hormone that regulates your blood sugar.

When traveling with diabetes, take care of yourself — plan your trip, stock up on supplies and think ahead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Diabetes Associations (ADA) offer a number of good ideas to make your trip enjoyable and safe.

Plan Ahead

Early preparation can head off problems during your trip. First and most important: don’t forget the bracelet, necklace or other medical information that shows you have diabetes. In an emergency, you may be unable to tell someone what the problem is.

If you plan a long trip, the ADA suggests you have a physical at least one month before you leave. Update your immunizations if necessary. A trip that involves major changes in activity levels may mean changes in your daily medications, so discuss this with your doctor.

If you will be crossing time zones, work out your insulin dosage schedule with your doctor or a diabetes educator.

Managing Medications

Anyone who has ever traveled knows that the best-laid plans can be detoured or delayed. Bring twice as many medications and supplies as you expect to use.

Don’t forget extra batteries for your blood glucose meter. And those who take insulin should also carry a glucagon kit.

Keep your insulin cool, but don’t place it directly on an ice or gel pack. Ask your doctor for copies of your prescriptions, so you can get them filled if you run out or lose something. Keep a copy of your doctor’s contact information and your insurance card with you.

All medications should remain in their original pharmacy packaging, which has the official labels. If you’re going to be staying at your destination for a while, locate a source of temporary medical care. If you need to take insulin while in the air, the CDC says not to inject air into the bottle — the cabin is already pressurized. 

Food and Drink

Balancing your food intake with insulin and activity are extremely important when you have diabetes. The CDC recommends packing snacks that will keep your blood sugar stable, as well as emergency glucose in gel or tablet form. Dried fruit, seeds, nuts, raw vegetables, or small packages of cheese or peanut butter and crackers are good choices. Also, carry a few bottles of water to prevent dehydration.

If you will be served a meal on a plane or train, call ahead at least one day before you leave to ask for a diabetes-friendly meal. If meals are not served, plan to carry enough snacks to make up the difference.

Keep Moving

One disadvantage of traveling by air or train is that you tend to remain in your seat until your destination. On long trips, you may be more likely to develop blood clots in your legs, the CDC notes, so move your feet up and down to increase blood flow in your legs. When possible, get up and walk in the aisles several times during your trip — or stop the car and take a short walk.

Keep all your medications and supplies in your carry-on luggage — that way, you're covered even if your checked baggage is lost. And carry snacks and medications on your person — not in an overhead bin — so you can get to them when you need them.

You may prefer not to go through the metal detector at an airport if you wear an insulin pump. The metal in these pumps can set off the detectors. Instead, let the security officer know you would prefer a pat-down.

Other Issues

You may need to check your blood sugar more frequently when traveling, as changes in food, time zones and activity levels can affect your blood sugar.

"Non-diabetics have a pancreas that adjusts the amount of insulin that is released into the blood stream to exactly match the amount of glucose in one's blood. Diabetics control glucose levels with pills and/or insulin that is calculated to match an average food intake and amount of physical activity.  When food intake or physical exertion changes, the dose of medication must be changed," said David Winter, MD, MSc, MACP, Chief Clinical Officer, President and Chairman of the Board of HealthTexas Provider Network (HTPN), a division of Baylor Health Care System.

You might also be exposed to people with colds or other infections — frequent hand-washing can protect you.

You're also likely to find that traveling means a lot more walking than you're used to. Because diabetes can make patients more prone to certain infections, the CDC says you should take extra care of your feet to prevent cuts, blisters or injuries that can lead to infection. Wear comfortable shoes and take as many breaks as you need.


Review Date: 
December 11, 2014