Take a vacation from diabetes

Use these 25 tips to make your next trip a breeze.
With a bit of advanced planning, people with diabetes will be able to enjoy vacation with fewer worries. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
With a bit of advanced planning, people with diabetes will be able to enjoy vacations with fewer worries. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Hopefully you’re one of the lucky ones planning a winter vacation to soak in some much-needed sunshine.

Part of the fun of going on vacation is breaking your day-to-day routine, but it’s best to pack your care routine, especially if you live with diabetes.

Meals away from home, changes in your activity level, unforeseen trip detours, and changes in time zones as you travel can affect how well you can manage your blood sugar.

A plan can help you avoid any troublesome moments that can interfere with the relaxing time you desperately need.

General travel tips and ideas:

  • Before you go, check the expiration date on all your medications and supplies (think test strips) and get refills ahead of time.
  • Carry a written sheet of all your medications and doses.
  • Figure out the best way to store your medications before you leave (more on medication storage below).
  • Always bring a backup of everything. If possible, pack twice the amount of medications and supplies you expect you need in case there are any delays.
  • Have medications clearly marked with the pharmaceutical label that identifies them. Keep supplies in the original pharmacy-labeled packaging when possible.
  • Take written copies of prescriptions in case you run out of your medication, lose your medication, or break a vial of insulin.
  • Carry glucose tablets, or candy, in case you experience low blood sugar. Also carry extra snacks.
  • Have your provider’s contact information. Carry your insurance card as well.
  • Wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace that says you have diabetes.
  • Be aware of what time zones you will be traveling through so you know when to take medication.
  • Find out where there is a pharmacy and where to get medical care if needed near your destination.
  • Bring a trusted carb-counting guide for meal or snacking pit-stops and wait until your food is served before taking your insulin.
  • Try to move around every hour or two.
  • If you wear an insulin pump, talk with your diabetes educator or provider about a pump back-up plan. Many pump companies offer a “loner pump” option as a back-up, but be sure to check into this several months ahead of your trip.

Other game-changing packing ideas that may come in handy: antidiarrheal medication, antibiotic ointment and anti-nausea drugs.

If you’re on the road, additional pieces of advice:

  • Pack a small cooler of foods that may be hard to find on the road: fresh fruit and veggies, for example.
  • If you’re traveling with insulin, don’t store it in direct sunlight or in a hot car. Keep it in a cooler, but do not place it directly on ice or on a gel pack. Check out FRIO insulin cooling cases.
  • Bring plenty of water.

 Specific to air travel:

  • If you are flying, pack your medications, supplies, snacks, and glucose tablets in your carry-on bag so you have everything available to you anytime (don’t store them in the overhead bins).
  • Don’t walk through the metal detector with your insulin pump or glucose sensor. Instead, tell a security officer that you are wearing an insulin pump and/or sensor and request they visually inspect the pump and do a pat-down (see tip on TSA Cares Program below). Note: You DO NOT need to disconnect your pump or sensor at security.
  • If a meal will be served during your flight, wait until your food is served before you take your insulin. (If you prefer, call ahead for healthier meal alternatives).
  • If the airline doesn’t offer a meal, bring your own meal or snack.
  • When drawing up your dose of insulin, don’t inject air into the bottle because of pressure changes in the cabin.
  • For any other questions pertaining to air travel and diabetes, visit the TSA website Passengers with Diabetes.
  • If you feel uncomfortable or anxious, print information from the above website and carry it with you or take advantage or TSA Cares Program.
  • If you are going abroad: Get a list of English-speaking foreign doctors from the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers or call 716.754.4883. Otherwise, in case of emergency, you can contact the American Consulate for a list of doctors.

The TSA Cares Program is a great resource if you are feeling uncomfortable about traveling with diabetes. The program will arrange for you to have an advocate at your side whose sole focus is getting you through smoothly. All you need to do is call 1.855.787.2227 at least 72 hours ahead of your travel date for more information about what to expect during screening. TSA Cares will arrange to have checkpoint support for you or a family member at your specific airport location. The idea of this program is to reduce stress of getting through security.

During travel, the temperature of your medication is of extraordinary importance because it loses some potency when exposed to extreme temperatures. The longer it’s been exposed, the less effective it can become, which could result in an emergency. It’s also a good idea to think ahead of how to protect it from the heat and sun (or from the cold, on your way back home).

Regardless if insulin is opened or unopened, vials, cartridges, or pens may be left unrefrigerated at room temperature between 59°F and 86°F. Be sure to check your medication instructions for the length of time it can be left out. This changes from one medication to the next and can be anywhere from 10-42 days.

Discard insulin that has been exposed to extreme conditions and replace as soon as possible. If you have specific questions about the suitability of your insulin or other medication, call the drug company or your diabetes care provider.

Try to keep insulin as cool as possible. If you are packing insulin in a cooler with ice, avoid freezing the insulin by wrapping it in a cloth or paper towels. Do not use insulin that has been frozen. Keep insulin away from direct heat and out of direct sunlight.

Once you get all set to go, all that’s left to do is enjoy your vacation. Without the worry. Safe travels!

Elizabeth (Libby) Downs, MS, RD, CDE, is a diabetes educator.

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