Insulin Onboard – Traveling with Diabetes 101

Insulin Onboard - Traveling with Diabetes 101

Daniel Pereira 

Traveling is stressful enough for the average person, but it takes some careful planning for someone with type 1 diabetes. Complex medical equipment and needles may raise questions with airport security or border crossing personnel. Insulin is a temperamental medication that needs to be kept within a fairly narrow range of temperatures. Everything from the meals you eat, to your physical activity, to your sleep schedule can change, throwing off even the most carefully-calibrated blood sugar management routines.

To help guide people with type 1 diabetes through the stresses of air travel, T1D Exchange has compiled a list of tips and techniques to navigate airports, hotels, and border crossings. While some of these tips may seem like common sense to seasoned travelers, research we’ve conducted has actually shown that people with type 1 diabetes often encounter these types of issues.

In 2017, the William Sansum Diabetes Center collaborated with T1D Exchange Glu users and T1D Exchange on research about precisely these concerns in a study published in the journal Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics. 

Here are the key findings from that study:

– Of the 503 participants polled, 22% reported running out of insulin during a trip over the last 5 years.

– 10% reported difficulties with a diabetes-related device during a flight. 

– About 10% of those surveyed experienced problems with hypoglycemia immediately after arriving at their destination. 

– 66% reported some level of difficulties with airport security.

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 Here are some important strategies to help you travel safely with type 1 diabetes:

1. Inventory your supplies. List everything you’ll need, including insulin, test strips, injection sites, and needles. The list will help you organize, make sure you’ve remembered everything, and get a sense of how fast you go through supplies. Don’t forget glucagon, either – we polled T1D Exchange Glu members and found that just 44% of bring a glucagon kit on your travels. 

2. Pack more than you need. Supplies can be damaged or lost in transit or, while staying abroad, you never know when you might get stuck at an airport, and insulin needs vary with changed routines. You never know when you might get stuck in an airport waiting on a storm or a canceled flight.

3. If flying, bring as much as you can in a carry-on bag. It may feel inconvenient, but it’s best not to trust too many of your critical, life-saving supplies to the mercy of checked baggage.

4. Call ahead to request accommodations. Many hotels and other lodgings can and will accommodate people with type 1 diabetes by providing special amenities, like mini-fridges for insulin, for example.

5. Know best practices – and your rights. The expensive and sophisticated equipment we use to manage diabetes can be temperamental. Some models of pumps should never go through the full-body scanners or X-ray machines, which can disrupt the delicate electronics inside.

6. Get a doctor’s note. In case you run into questions or trouble with needles or medication, the note should cover your needs. In situations such as the above, some people may have incorrect or outdated information about best practices. Have it in writing in case you get questioned. 

7. Learn about your destination. It’s important to understand basic information about where you’re going, including what the availability of insulin or diabetes tech might be, the climate, and whether there will be issues with intermittent electricity. 

8. Make sure you have emergency contact information along with you. Carry information about diabetes and those contacts – in a local language, if necessary.

For pump users:

1. Many pump companies will provide a loaner pump for international travel. Ask the manufacturer because having a backup is always important.

2. Even if you don’t use them, bring syringes. The last thing you want on vacation is to be stuck with a non-functioning pump and no way to bolus. 

3. Use alcohol swabs to clean your pump connection sites and then use the wrapper to keep the ends sterile when taking your pump off at airports – or at the beach. No one wants to deal with an infection on vacation, so make sure to sterilize any pump connections and keep them that way.

Travel can be stressful, and that goes double for people with type 1 diabetes. With a little bit of preparation and planning, though, you can make it much easier.

Let us know in the comments about any tips, tricks, or experiences you have with long-distance travel!

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