How To Travel When You Are Chronically Ill

I wish travel therapy was covered by my health insurance. –Anonymous, but sounds like something I would say!

If you’ve ever traveled with a nagging headache, or worse, you ate or drank something you probably shouldn’t have, you know that traveling when you don’t feel well is not fun.

Imagine then, that you love to travel but you struggle with a chronic illness.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

My guess is that if you’re reading this, you too struggle with something that makes enjoying travel a challenge, so I hope that I can offer support in some way, even if it’s in the assurance that you are not alone!

After five years of off-and-on unexplained illness and multiple doctors who told me to “put more fiber into my diet,” (which was very poor advice, by the way) I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2005. Since then, I have made the best that I can from this not-so-simple fact of my life. I have my good days and then, there are the frightening days. The catch has been that I never know from day to day or even hour to hour, how I will feel. I can wake up feeling great and be down in bed and in pain by lunchtime. There has been scary pain, emergency rooms, and hospital admissions. I have endured the crippling anxiety of giving myself shots, dealing with doctors who just want a copay and send me off with mulitple prescriptions that are nowhere near therapeutic levels, and employers who told me that I didn’t look sick! (–and I’m glad she never had to see me at my worst.) When faced with that attitude, I usually understand it to be cruel ignorance, assumptions, and disrespect, and let it go. Most people who are chronically ill are experts at living with their illness and manage to limit what others see. Not everyone that is sick has visible symptoms or should be required to prove that they are sick. Anyone who thinks that I don’t look sick has no idea what I deal with alone, not even the people who love me most.

Luckily, over the years my body’s bad behavior has only threatened to keep us from flying one time.  In the meantime, as I’m sure all my fellow chronically ill warriors will understand, I have taught myself to live with my condition, determined to carry on with life, as undeterred as possible. 

When it comes to travel, I have to confess that I have probably traveled when I shouldn’t have and pushed through trying to take in as much as I could while dealing with chronic pain. My illness, as unpredictable as it is, has left me doing everything I can to be as healthy and prepared as I can before leaving home.

Whether you have migraines, asthma, MS, diabetes, or any illness that can threaten to slow you down, these are a few things that work for me as I prepare to travel as a chronically ill patient:

In the planning stage

As you prepare to travel, have you ever had to ask yourself, “Should I stay home?”  That’s a tough question when your trip is planned and paid for.  It’s important for me to take care of myself so I can travel.  That means seeing my doctor regularly, taking my meds on schedule and as prescribed, and making sure I am rested and have as little stress as possible (Ha!).

For me, it’s a great practice to see my doctor before I travel, if at all possible.  Am I well enough to hit the road safely and in good health?  I also try to be wary of any pain or potential side effects of my medication that I might be experiencing and talk with my doctor before I go. It’s best to address something beforehand so it doesn’t become a problem while I’m traveling.   

For our major trips, we always purchased travel insurance.  Our thinking is that it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and wish we had it!  This is a bit of security for us in the event that my body rebels and we have to make the dreaded decision of whether to travel or not, or worse, if I get sick on the road and have to seek medical care.  Ask your travel professional about travel insurance if you think you might need a safety net but, before you purchase, be an informed consumer. Make sure you understand how travel insurance works, what it covers, and how to use it. 

Traveling with medication

When we travel, I am a walking medicine chest!  While most people check and double check their travel ID’s, tickets, boarding passes, and passports (which we do as well), I check and double check to make sure I have all the medication I need, both prescribed and over the counter.  My symptoms can often be managed with medications so I will always bring more than I need, just in case I need it or in the rare case that there are any hiccups in our travel plans that result in delays (i.e. no plane in Salt Lake City!).  Since my illness can be unpredictable, I go prepared for anything. I would rather bring home unused meds than not have enough to manage on the road.  

Always consider how to travel with your meds. Do you need a written prescription to get you through TSA checks or customs? When traveling internationally, keeping your medication in its original container with prescription information clearly marked could prevent a security agent from taking your medication from you.

If you travel with sharps like me, do you know how to do that properly? One of my drugs needs to be kept cool so that can be a trick! If you travel with sharps, make sure the security agents are aware in advance of your screen. If they are aware in advance, your screen will be a bit smoother (depending on the agents).

Check and double check

The most vital tips I could offer about traveling with your medication is to keep your drugs with you at all times! I always make sure that my precious carry-on space leaves my meds within reach.  Never, ever put your meds in your checked bags in the event that your luggage gets lost in Chicago and you are looking for it in Stockholm! (My poor husband!)  

Self-care when I travel

When we travel, I try to practice self-care which can sometimes be even more important than my actual medications!  Some of our travel lends itself to rest like our favorite form of travel, cruising. However, some travel is fast-paced and we are moving non-stop all day.  Those can be the trips that I physically struggle with the most especially when we are moving quickly for days with little time for rest. 

A good example was during our group trip to Italy. While it was the trip of a lifetime and we fell in love with everything Italian, I struggled with pain throughout the trip.  One evening, some of our group went out to dinner in Florence but, as difficult as it was, I chose not to go.  I knew that I needed to rest my body.  I also knew that I was not staying properly hydrated so my goal for the evening was to drink water and rest.  I went to our hotel room, drank as much water as I could, and got in bed.  The culprit for me is usually the medication that I am on.   It works best if taken at the same time of day, every day, so traveling through various time zones can prove troublesome for me.  As a result, during nearly all of our travel in Italy, I was in pain of varying levels.  Going to bed early that evening and resting my body was helpful and I felt much better the next day.  Late nights, early wake-up calls and long, strenuous travel days can put stress on my body and while I want to see it all in the time I have, I’ve discovered that rest and pacing my travel is important for me.  It’s taken me a long time, but knowing my body and understanding these triggers has helped me to take care of myself better on the road so I can enjoy where I am.

Which girl is in pain and which one is feeling great? I hope you can’t tell but I know!

Being sick doesn’t always mean you can’t travel

I try to be smart and pay attention to my body. When I travel, I do what I can to balance new foods, watch out for “trigger” foods, rest, manage the stress of travel on my body, and take my meds as prescribed.  I also try to remember to drink lots of water to stay hydrated. That one is the hardest for me, even at home! 

Overall, I count myself blessed.  We’ve had some epic trips and my body has thankfully “behaved.”  I am not afraid to travel but as we near our departure, I have to manage the anxiety of “what if.”  The most important thing for me to do then is to try not to worry about something that might not happen and instead, just be prepared. 

My illness has gone into a form of remission after some very difficult times. I have been determined not to be defined by my body’s bad manners and even after a major hospitalization, I was well enough to be on a plane to Scotland only two short months later, albeit with the dreaded steroids in my purse.

I want to go, do, and see!  I don’t want to be sick!  I do know my limits and while I might push them too much from time to time, I do know that traveling is ultimately good for my soul. I don’t want to regret not going one day when I can no longer go.

I know there are other fellow sufferers out there that love to travel.  If you have any tips or tricks that you use before and during your trips that you feel comfortable sharing, I’d love to know how you manage. 

I hope that if you suffer physically in any way, you can travel in whatever capacity you are able. 

I always wish you safe and healthy travels, where ever you might be heading.  

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