Ask Dana: What to plan for while traveling with diabetes
After a long year of just staying home most of the time, I am excited to travel during the upcoming summer months. I have not traveled at all since I have been diagnosed with diabetes or since I have started using insulin. Is there anything special I should consider while making vacation plans?
– Barbara Stone, Ann Arbor, Michigan
How exciting! I love to travel and am looking forward to some trips myself. Traveling with diabetes does take a bit of planning ahead and some organization so I’m glad you are thinking about it while you make plans.
First, it is important that you have all of your medications and diabetes supplies with you at all times. You don’t want to risk separating from insulin or supplies while you are out of town. You also want to make sure you have extra charge cords for any diabetes technology or batteries in your carry-on bags. When traveling, plan for unexpected layovers or delays and keep snacks with you to help you maintain your blood sugars. I always suggest bringing several extra days’ worth of supplies and medications in case your plans change. And, depending on where you are going, you may consider bringing back up technology with you. Pump companies will often provide loaner pumps in case you are going out of the country. It is also a good idea to bring an extra glucometer even if you are using a continuous glucose monitor.
After you finish packing, start thinking about your experience at the airport. Security screeners are trained to identify syringes and pen needles, but it is easier for them to identify these as medically necessary if they are packed together in the same bag. There has been no data showing that screening machines impact pumps, meters, or monitors. If you are concerned about the X-ray machines, you may ask for a hand screening at security. The TSA Cares Program can assist you with navigating security lines.
Changing time zones while traveling can be tricky if it impacts the time of your basal insulin or varying ratios for mealtime insulin. Make sure to keep your insulin pump in the correct time zone you are traveling in so that you don’t have problems with preprogrammed settings. You may need to adjust the time of your basal insulin a few days prior to your trip depending on how different the time zones will be.
While it is a good idea to bring extra medicine while you travel in case of an emergency, it is also helpful to have a backup plan in case any of your devices malfunction. If you are an insulin pump user, it is a good idea to bring long-acting insulin as a backup plan. It is also wise to bring syringes and extra pen needles if you need to start using injections while away. You always, of course, want to have a glucose source and glucagon with you at all times in case of a hypoglycemic event.
One of my favorite things about traveling is eating the local cuisine. However, this can a bit of a challenge if there are unfamiliar foods and if you have trouble understanding a different language. Learning the local word for “carbohydrate” can make looking at a nutrition label a bit easier. It is also helpful to learn a bit about the cuisine before your trip and experiment with your mealtime insulin.
Your activity may be widely varied while traveling as well. Adjusting your long-acting insulin or basal rate on an insulin pump is a very common thing to do while traveling. You might be walking more or involved in more physical activity. Adjusting the mealtime insulin prior to an activity can be helpful to prevent low blood sugars. Hopefully, these are things that you have an opportunity to try before traveling so you feel comfortable making these adjustments.
Learning to navigate diabetes in a variety of situations is part of living successfully with diabetes. There is no trip or experience that cannot be done safely and done well… it just may take a bit of planning and a bit of homework. If you need more guidance on traveling safely with diabetes, reach out to your healthcare team or any of the IDS providers for more assistance. We are happy to help you plan an exciting summer vacation!
Dana is a Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist and Registered Dietitian. She holds certifications in insulin pump therapy and obesity interventions for adults. Dana received a Master’s in Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago after receiving a Bachelor’s in Science with Honors at the University of Texas at Austin. After college, Dana served as an AmeriCorp volunteer on a variety of health education initiatives and played a key role in establishing the first school-based health clinic in the city of Chicago.