Travel Safely with a Chronic Condition This Summer

Having a chronic illness often means living life a little differently than other people. But whether you have diabetes, HIV, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, or any other ailment, you can still take a summer road trip or even fly abroad for a summer vacation.

For any chronic condition, establishing a personal health record, or PHR, is a great first step toward preparing for travel. People have heard about EHRs, or electronic health records, but PHRs are different. A PHR is not subject to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations and can come in a variety of forms. It can be on paper or on a personal device, or simply be an e-mail that is stored in the cloud and is accessible from anywhere.

Think of a PHR like the “emergency card” a parent fills out for his or her child at the beginning of the school year. It contains information about your illness, medications, allergies, surgical history, emergency contacts, and any other data you would like to include.

“No PHR is alike,” said Lesley Kadlec, director of HIM practice excellence at the American Health Information Management Association. She told Healthline that some PHRs are free and some are not. More information is available at MyPHR.com.

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Chronic Pain

Managing pain can be problematic for people traveling out of state, and especially overseas. Getting a refill for narcotic painkillers can be difficult when you're away from home. It’s important for people taking any kind of medication to pack enough not only for their stay, but also a little extra. Luggage can get lost or stolen, or plans can change, resulting in a longer visit. It's also a good idea to pack your medications in your purse or other carry-on bag to avoid checking them.

“Just like you make sure you have your airline tickets and travel insurance, you need to plan ahead for your medical care,” said Dr. John Dombrowski, an anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist, and member of the board of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Dombrowski told Healthline that many people who suffer from chronic pain do not know they can get long-lasting injections to ease their discomfort. This can eliminate the need for narcotics, which are under scrutiny as more and more Americans become addicted.

Injections for pain that target specific nerve receptors can work well, Dombrowski said. So-called “facet injections” anesthetize the joints of the spine, which can be especially helpful for elderly people suffering from degenerative disc disease or arthritis.

“We’re the chemists of the operating room, but nobody thinks of anesthesiology outside of the OR,” Dombrowski said.

Non-narcotic medications such as tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also help manage pain, Dombrowski said. Spinal cord stimulation may help those with back pain, including those who do not want surgery or have not found relief from surgery. It can also be used for neuropathies brought on by diabetes, chemotherapy, HIV, and other conditions.

Diabetes

The American Association of Diabetes Educators recommends that you pack an extra week’s worth of medications and supplies, including insulin, syringes, testing strips, and extra batteries for your pump. Make sure that you take a physical prescription for your medications with you and keep them in their original bottles.

Keep your medications and supplies with you—not checked on the airplane or left in the trunk. Extremes in temperature can be detrimental to the drugs. If you're traveling to a country with a primary language other than English, make sure to learn how to say “I have diabetes,” “sugar,” and “orange juice, please.” Pack a list of English-speaking doctors who practice in the area you will be visiting. 

Carry snacks to avoid a dip in blood sugar levels, and test yourself often. Also, pack comfortable shoes and socks for your feet.

Multiple Sclerosis

The National MS Society advises travelers to be prepared for an “exacerbation,” the fancy word for a tough flare-up for people with MS. Such flare-ups can occur during periods of stress, heat, and fatigue—often hallmarks of summer travel.

Make sure you’re prepared and can recognize signs of a flare-up, such as infection, bladder problems, and cold- or flu-like symptoms. Carry a note from your doctor giving you the OK to fly with needles if your medication is given by injection.

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Crohn’s and Colitis

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America advises sticking to the diet that works for you at home when you're traveling. Never eat at a buffet, and avoid fast-food restaurants. 

Know who to seek out for medical treatment in case of a flare-up at your destination. Always know where the bathrooms are located wherever you go, and how to say the word for "toilet" in the language of your destination.

For any chronic condition, it’s important to remain active and stay on your regular sleep schedule and current diet, Dombrwoski said. “Before plunking down money for a trip to Europe, come in (to see your doctor) for a tune-up. Do it four to six weeks beforehand to make sure you’re in the best shape possible.”

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