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Traveling with Diabetes: 6 Essential Tips for a Safe Trip

It might not be the first thing you’d expect a parent to fret about when their small child is diagnosed with an incurable disease requiring a lifetime of constant care, but it was one of the first for me.

Standing in an ICU just after my six-year-old was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I looked at her doctors and said mournfully, “Oh, my gosh: Our travel days are over.”

Totally selfish? Not really. Because by admitting it to that medical team, I learned that not only were our travel days not over, they were more important than ever.

“You must continue on with life as you all choose to live it and blend diabetes into it,” the chief endocrinologist said. “Not just for you—for her. You want to model for your daughter that diabetes need not stop her from her dreams. We’ll figure it out.”

And we did. Almost 21 years later, I’m proud to say that then-little girl was raised on travel. She skied big mountains all over North America. She hiked and swam and noshed and jumped in pools and rode zip-lines in numerous countries, all while managing her diabetes.

How? With planning, education, and foresight. And you can do it, too. Here are some of my top tips for traveling with diabetes.

Have a Plan for Traveling with Diabetes

Your medical team is your friend here. Talk to your doctors ahead of time about your destination, activities, length of visit, and weather. Often, based on that, your team will suggest initial tweaks to your daily insulin routine. Things like altitude, heat, cold, exertion, and unusual foods can all change your needs.

You should have a plan, too, for sickness (what to do, when to call for help, when to not worry) and for broken technology if you use an insulin pump or glucose monitor. Planning for a malfunction makes sense. Work with your doctor before your trip to prepare written instructions—including doses—for administering back-up insulin with a syringe.

Talk to your medical team about packing Zofran or another anti-nausea medication. Stomach bugs can wreak havoc when traveling with diabetes. Being prepared can mean avoiding an ER visit in an unfamiliar place.

Consider Travel Insurance

You should also look into purchasing travel insurance. People with diabetes don’t get sick any more often than people without diabetes, and if you’re prepared, chances are you’re going to be ready for most situations. However, travel insurance is often a good idea for anyone traveling out of the country, particularly to places without easy access to high-quality hospitals. Frequent travelers with diabetes say that if they’re in a spot that might necessitate expensive helicopter evaluation, they usually purchase travel insurance for the trip.

A good starting point is to give your own health insurance company a call and find out what coverage you’ll have in your destination. If you see any gaps, then you may want to fill them.

Read the fine print on your travel insurance policy before booking, particularly the part about pre-existing conditions, and don’t be shy about calling the company directly to make sure any issues associated with your diabetes will be covered. As long as your condition is stable within the policy’s look-back period, with no changes of treatment or diagnosis, you’ll likely be covered.

Pack Everything—Twice

On one trip out of the country, my daughter looked at all the supplies I had brought along and said, “This is great, Mom. If all the people with diabetes who are currently in Mexico come to our room and need something, we’ve got them covered!”

She was exaggerating, but traveling with diabetes means this: Bring at least twice as much of everything that you might need. That includes insulin, syringes, pump supplies, glucagon, meters, and strips, as well as any other medical supplies you use. Think zombie apocalypse. Bringing twice as much ensures that should you have a crisis, lose something, or have something break, you’re covered.

Some insulin pump companies will loan you a back-up pump for overseas trips. Check with your company to see if it does. Pack, too, written notes on your insulin pump settings (in case it shorts out), the emergency phone number for your medical team, the emergency phone number of the closest ER, and the 24-hour support phone for any devices you use. Pack back-up batteries too. They’re not always easy to find on the road.

Speaking of packing, never put medical supplies in checked luggage. Carry them on. Why? Because luggage gets lost, temps get crazy down in the luggage area, and you might get stuck at a stopover or even on a plane. You can go without your sun hat. Your insulin? That needs to stay near you.

What about packing low supplies? Items with a long shelf life, like crackers and glucose tablets, can be packed in a checked bag (the back-ups, not the need-nows). In your carry-on, it’s easier to avoid liquid choices like juice boxes. While you can battle with TSA to bring them through, it’s just more seamless to bring solid glucose choices onboard. And you can always purchase juice on the cleared side of security should you prefer it. Never count on there being any on the plane.

Prepare for Airport Security

Airport security is admittedly a bit trickier when traveling with diabetes, but again, planning helps. If you are wearing a medical device, check your manufacturer’s rules on what type of security it can go through. Some companies say X-ray machines are fine but full-body scanners are not; it varies from brand to brand.

Once you know, self-identify before you step up. Most times, the TSA is ready for you. If you’re wearing a medical device, you may have to go through a quick pat-down and swab. If you have a child with diabetes, make sure they know to expect some extra screening.

Ask your medical team to write a letter of necessity for the medications you are carrying on, and tuck it into the bag those medicines are in. You likely won’t be asked for it, but you’ll have it just in case. And yes, insulin, meters, and strips can go though the X-ray belt.

If any of this makes you nervous, check out the TSA Cares program. Call 72 hours before travel, and an agent will answer your questions and even coordinate with the checkpoint you’ll be crossing through to help make it easier for you.

Have a Plan for Your Insulin

What of the ageless question of whether you need to keep your insulin cold? Most insulin can be used at room temperature. Remember, too, that hotel room fridges are sometimes wonky and can freeze your insulin, making it unusable. Plan on keeping it at room temperature. If you must keep it cool, check out portable cooling products like the Frio Case.

As for cold destinations you’ll be outside in: Don’t worry about pump insulin freezing. Just keep your pump and tubing under your clothes and close to your skin. Long-timer tip: If you’re outdoors in the cold and your glucose meter won’t work, stick it under your arm for 30 seconds. Works like a charm.

Don’t Let Diabetes Stop You

Just as I’ve said to my daughter throughout her 21 years of traveling with diabetes: You can do anything you’d do without diabetes. People with diabetes have climbed Kilimanjaro, swum across the English Channel, won Olympic medals, and been world champions in all kinds of ways. You, too, can go where you desire and experience any travel thrill you crave. With great planning, you never need to let diabetes stop you from your adventures of a lifetime.

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Moira McCarthy is an award-winning travel and adventure writer, and a regular contributor to the Boston Herald and SKI Magazine. She is also an internationally known diabetes advocate and speaker and was named the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s international volunteer of the year. You can follow her on Twitter @MoiraCMcC, on Facebook @MoiraMcC, and on Instagram at Moira McCarthy Stanford.

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