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4 Tips for Staying on Top of Your Diabetes When Traveling

When you’re traveling, there are a lot of details to take care of. You may need to figure out what time to get to the airport, fill up your gas tank, find directions to where you’re staying, take your dog to the kennel or all of the above.

When you have diabetes, there’s another layer of things you need to remember. But don’t let that keep you home. 

“Diabetes does not have to limit travel. People are living with diabetes from all walks of life and travel daily. In fact, Pietro Marsala from Scottsdale, AZ, became the first commercial airline pilot with type 1 diabetes in 2020,” said Jordan Wagner, a diabetes educator with Banner Health who has type 1 diabetes.

Wagner shared advice for packing and traveling when you have diabetes. “Diabetes never takes a break. It is important to be prepared for any situation that could arise with diabetes management while you travel,” he said.

1. Pack so you’re prepared for problems

Make sure you have what you need if you face delays or lost luggage. “Bring extra supplies,” Wagner said. “My rule of thumb is to bring at least double the amount I need for the trip. As an example, if I am going to be out of town for ten days, I’ll bring enough supplies for at least 20 days.”

What to bring depends on what you need to manage your diabetes. Your list may include:

  • Glucose meter and batteries
  • Test strips
  • Medications
  • Syringes
  • Insulin pens
  • Insulin pump supplies
  • Low blood sugar treatments
  • Glucagon emergency kits
  • Ketone test sticks
  • Lancets
  • Alcohol swaps
  • Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs)
  • Case to keep insulin cool during travel (Wagner said FRIO is a good option)

2. Know how to navigate airport security 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has regulations in place to accommodate passengers with diabetes and their medical supplies. 

“Most airport security employees are very familiar with diabetes medications and devices,” Wagner said. “Some people choose to have a written letter from their doctor with them to share with security employees.” The letter can state your condition and what medications and equipment you need. You may also want to have a medical ID bracelet or card.

These tips can help you get past the scanners smoothly:

  • Let security personnel know that you have diabetes and you’re carrying medication and supplies.
  • Make sure all of your medication is labeled and the prescription information is visible.
  • Let airport security employees know if you are wearing a CGM or insulin pump and where they are located.
  • Don’t take your insulin pump through the X-ray or CT scanner. “The safest option for your insulin pump is the metal detector or having a physical patdown by the security employee,” Wagner said. “Once you’ve passed through the security screening, you will be asked to touch your insulin pump thoroughly, and the security employee will take a sample from your fingers to check for any suspicious or illegal substances. After that, you’re free to go to your next destination.” For specific guidance on traveling with your insulin pump, check the manufacturer’s website.

3. Account for time zone changes

“Medication timing has a big impact on diabetes management,” Wagner said. For example, if you take long-acting insulin at 6 p.m. daily and you travel to a location 10 hours ahead, it will be 4 a.m. there.

Traveling across time zones can also disrupt your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm). So your insulin and blood sugar levels may fluctuate. You may want to adjust your dosing times gradually before your trip. That may help your body adapt better to the new time zone and give you better control over your blood sugar levels. 

“The best advice I can give is to consult with your doctor or endocrinologist about time zone changes and your medications,” Wagner said.

4. Keep an eye on your blood sugar levels

When you’re traveling, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels closely so you can make adjustments if you need to. Changes in your activity levels, meal timing and sleep can impact your blood sugar levels even if you’re not changing time zones.

Check your blood sugar regularly, especially before meals, snacks and bedtime. Be prepared to adjust your insulin dosing or carbohydrate intake if you need to. Watch for any signs of hypo- or hyperglycemia and address them right away.

Pack snacks like nuts, seeds or dried fruit or glucose tablets in case you need a quick source of carbohydrates to raise your blood sugar levels. Keep them in your purse or carry-on bag, not in checked luggage.

Your diet might be a little different when you’re traveling. Still, try to eat balanced meals with proteins, healthy fats and carbs and be mindful of portion sizes and sugary or high-carb foods that may spike your blood sugar. 

Be sure to stay hydrated as well. “There is a tendency not to drink fluids on flights or long drives to avoid trips to the bathroom. However, dehydration can lead to high blood sugar,” Wagner said. Carry a refillable water bottle and aim to drink plenty of fluids.

Physical activity can help regulate your blood sugar levels, so try to walk when you can. Take breaks if you’re driving and walk around the airport during layovers. Try to exercise at your destination. Even a little bit of movement can help control your blood sugar.

The bottom line

“Travel with diabetes can be stressful, but planning and getting supplies ready a few days in advance will greatly limit stress and anxiety,” Wagner said. You’ll get the most enjoyment from your trip if you’re not worried about running out of supplies or controlling your blood sugar.

It’s a good idea to see your endocrinologist before traveling if you plan to cross time zones. That way, you can make a plan for adjusting your medication and managing your blood sugar. If you would like to connect with an expert at Banner Health for more tips about traveling with diabetes, reach out today.

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