Traveling, although exciting, can be stressful, even for the average person without inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can cause all sorts of uncomfortable symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain, which are set off or worsened by stress. If you’re someone who lives with IBD and needs to manage symptoms, should you let it stop your travel plans? Absolutely not! Read on to learn how to set yourself up for success and conquer your fear, so you can start packing your suitcases.
- Talk with your healthcare provider. Before your trip, speaking to your doctor is key. Make sure that you’re cleared for travel plans and fully understand any recent changes to your medication or treatment, including how to adjust for time zone changes. You’ll also want to have a plan in place regarding communication during your trip. Knowing you’re able to email, call, or book a telehealth appointment for advice or have a prescription sent to a nearby pharmacy if the need arises will give you peace of mind during your time away (1,3).
- Have a contingency plan. No one wants to think of the worst-case scenario, but you’ll be glad you did should issues crop up. Hope for the best but be prepared for a flare-up, and know what you’ll do in case of one. Make sure to investigate healthcare providers in the area you’re traveling to, including doctors, pharmacies, and hospitals. For domestic travel, you can check the database on the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation website to find a medical expert. If traveling internationally, you can check with the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) for a list of English-speaking physicians, or check with the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you’re visiting for a list of doctors and specialists (1,2,3).
- Buy travel insurance. Make sure your coverage extends to the area you’re going to, in the event of an emergency. If not, purchase travel insurance, and make sure you understand the policy, including their stance on pre-existing conditions and stability period requirements. Ensure that doctor visits, prescription medicine, and emergency room visits are covered. If anything is unclear, contact a customer service representative to make sure you understand the terms (2,3).
- Pack well. Being extra prepared by having everything you need will help you feel less anxious during your trip.
- Emergency supplies: Don’t forget things like bathroom wipes, tissues, hand sanitizer, plastic bags, and any ointments you use. These should go in an emergency bag that you keep with you wherever you are (1).
- Medications: Don’t forget to bring enough medication, as well as extra ostomy supplies if you need them. Medication should be kept with you, in carry-on luggage, in a small cooler, if refrigeration is needed. You should request a note from your doctor clearly explaining all medications, so going through airport security will be as uncomplicated as possible. Take copies of your prescriptions along and research generic and foreign names of medications just in case (2,3).
- Food: If you can, travel with some of your own food, that you know is safe and won’t set off an attack. If you’ll be traveling by plane, research the airline’s weight and liquid requirements in advance (1).
- Clothes: Make sure to pack loose comfortable clothes in case of bloating or abdominal pain. Loose pants with elastic waistbands and flowy dresses will allow your mind to stay on exploring your surroundings instead of making you uncomfortable (1).
- Eating do’s and don’ts…
- Pre-travel: In the days before travel, don’t drink coffee, eat any trigger foods, try anything new, or overindulge, and certainly not the day of travel. Since you’ll be in a confined space for a while, it’s best to eat very light while traveling, favoring small, safe snacks over large meals (1).
- Restaurants: Plan restaurants ahead of time by looking up online menus that will suit your needs. Make sure your travel companions know what things you can and can’t eat in case someone else is handling some of the reservations. Eating while traveling can tempt you to overindulge, but make sure to stick to your diet, and try to eat light, with safe snacks when you need them. If you want to try something new while traveling, keep it to a small serving until you know how your body will react to it. Talk to your server and make sure you know what will be in the food you’re ordering (1,3).
- Kitchen: If you’ll have a kitchen or a kitchenette in the place where you’ll be staying, you can play it extra safe by doing some of your own cooking (1).
- Have a bathroom strategy: Make sure you always know where the bathroom is! On a road trip, plot rest stops along the way to ensure you know where public restrooms are located. If you’re traveling by bus or train, make sure there’s a bathroom. On an airplane, pick an aisle seat close to the bathroom if possible, (preferably in business or first class if you’re able) to reduce the number of other people waiting to use it (1).
- Avoid traveler’s diarrhea. Depending on where you’re going you may have to watch out for contaminated food or water. Make sure to avoid tap water and ice -- only drink bottled water or water that’s been boiled. Make sure to use bottled water even when brushing teeth, and don’t swallow water when showering or swimming. Only eat food that is cooked well and served hot, and avoid fresh fruits or vegetables unless you’ve washed and peeled them yourself. Stay away from food vendor carts and ambiguously prepared foods (2,3).
- Stay Calm. Try not to stress over the details. Be as calm as you can, and remind yourself that you’re prepared to handle any IBD symptoms that may come up. If you do get sick, staying anxiety-free is even more important, as stress will make it worse. Try meditating to take your mind off possible symptoms, or doing a gentle yoga sequence (1).
Although having IBD can complicate things, it doesn’t mean you have to be left out of the fun and exploration of travel. People with IBD (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), require a bit more forethought and organization than the average traveler. However, with some careful planning, you can have a safe, confident trip, knowing that your bases are covered, even in case of an emergency.
1. Stephanie Booth, “Tips to Make Travel Easier with Crohn’s Disease,” webmd.com, WebMD LLC., accessed September 10, 2021, https://www.webmd.com/ibd-crohns-disease/crohns-disease/features/crohns-travel.2. “Traveling with IBD,” crohnscolitisfoundation.org, Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, accessed September 10, 2021, https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-is-ibd/traveling-with-ibd.
3. Firstname Lastname, “Tips for Traveling with IBD,” badgut.org, GI Society: Canadian Society for Intestinal Research, accessed September 10, 2021, https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/travelling-with-ibd/.