Top 10 Tips for Traveling With a Medical Condition
Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on April 27, 2022.
Check the Legality of Your Medicines in Your Destination Country Before You Go
This doesn’t apply if you take Tylenol (acetaminophen) and you are just popping over to Canada. But it does apply if you take prescription narcotic analgesics of any sort (ie, hydrocodone or codeine-containing medicines), require needles or syringes, or take medications for anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Some countries even have restrictions on sedating antihistamines, seizure medications, or hormonal contraceptives.
Take no more than you need for the trip, include a letter from your doctor, the original prescription, and keep all medicines in their original container with the label attached. Find out the laws from your destination country’s embassy or call the TSA toll free number at 1-855-787-2227 for further advice.
Needing Assistance Or Have Medicines Requiring Refrigeration?
If you require wheelchair assistance, are visually impaired, or have another medical condition that warrants preboarding, call the TSA Cares Help line, toll-free on 1-855-787-2227 at least 72 hours prior to traveling with all your questions about screening policies and what to expect at the checkpoint. This will give the TSA time to coordinate checkpoint support when necessary.
Travelers carrying medicines that require refrigeration on long haul flights will also need to prearrange cold storage for the flight. Carry your medicine in a separate bag ready to hand to the flight attendant when boarding the plane.
Special Notes For Diabetics
The American Diabetes Association has worked closely with the TSA to ensure all diabetes-related supplies can be carried on board by people with diabetes once they have been properly screened by x-ray or hand inspection. The ADA offers the following tips for people traveling with diabetes:
- Arrive at least two to three hours before your flight. Ensure all your supplies, including devices, have a prescription label or you carry a note from your doctor explaining the reason you need these supplies. Place all medications in a clear, sealable bag and keep separate from your other belongings for screening. Pack twice as much medication as you think you would need
- Carry or wear medical identification and your physician's contact information as well as a quick-acting source of glucose (such as candy, juice) and a nutrition bar to treat low blood glucose. Learn to say "I have diabetes", or "sugar or orange juice please", in the language of the country you are visiting
- If you use an insulin pump, inform the screening officer of it before screening begins. You will not be required to disconnect the pump; however, the pump itself may be subject to additional screening and possibly explosive trace detection sampling
- If you do not want a liquid, gel, or aerosol X-rayed or opened for additional screening, inform the screening officer before the process begins. However, be aware that medications not cleared by other additional screening means may have to x-rayed or they may not be allowed on board.
For more information about traveling with diabetes ring TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227) Mon-Fri 9 am-9 pm EST, excluding Federal holidays; or look on their website, www.tsa.gov.
The ADA is also keen to hear from people who believe they have been subjected to overly intrusive screening or treated unfairly just because they have diabetes. If you weren't happy with your experiences contact 1-800-DIABETES and ask to speak with a legal advocate.
Adjust Your Medication Schedule to Account for Time-Zone Changes
If it has taken a while to get your medical condition under control, then naturally you don't want to rock the boat when traveling. The last thing you want is to suffer a seizure or a clot because you forgot to take a dose of your medicine. Anybody taking medicines such as insulin, warfarin, or anti-seizure agents that need to be taken on a strict schedule should be especially careful when crossing time zones.
How much you need to change your medication schedule depends on how far you are traveling, and for how long. If you are just traveling from the East to the West coast of the U.S., for example, you may be able to keep to a similar schedule or just gradually adjust the timing of your dosages over a few days.
For people traveling further abroad, talk to your doctor a few months out from your holiday. A different formulation of your medication may be available, allowing you to take it less often during the day. This makes adjusting to time zones a whole lot easier, and reduces the chance of missing a dose.
If you have to take medications twice, or even three times daily, keep a written list of all your medications and how often you normally take them. Use the hours to your destination rather than the time of day to work out how many doses you will need during your flight, and check off when you have taken a dose. You may need to gradually adjust the dose by a hour or so each day to make it easier to fit in with the time zone of your new destination. Have a written plan that you have discussed with your doctor as well as a daily marked pill box to keep track of your medicine. When you are jet-lagged it can be impossible to remember if you did actually take your medicine or not!
Make Sure You Are Well on Your Day of Travel
You’ve planned this holiday for weeks. Work is up-to-date, the pets have been farmed out to various places, and your neighbor is collecting your mail.
The last thing you want is to be turned away at the airport because you are unwell or have symptoms of COVID-19. But airlines have a right to refuse boarding if they suspect you may adversely affect the welfare or comfort of other passengers or if you are likely to need special medical attention or equipment during the flight. Check any requirements of the airline you are travelling with or the country you are visiting with regards to COVID-19 as these are always changing.
Always visit your doctor a few weeks before you travel for a thorough medical check. Take out travel insurance, ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date well before you travel, and don’t be afraid to postpone your trip if you are not 100 percent.
Request a Pat Down or AIT Screening if You Have a Pacemaker or Defibrillator
Personal medical electronic devices (PMEDs) - include pacemakers, neurostimulators, and implantable cardio defibrillators - are encountered by screening officers at airports on a daily basis, so having a PMED should not put you off travel.
Always inform the officer prior to screening that you have a PMED. If you like, you can download the TSAs Disability Notification card for Air Travel which allows you to discretely communicate your condition to security officers (although this does not exempt you from screening).
Passengers with a PMED should not be screened by a metal detector but can request to be screened by advanced imaging technology (AIT) or a pat-down. AIT systems use a millimeter wave scanner that the CDC has deemed safe to use with a pacemaker or other PMED.
Be Prepared to Answer Questions About Medicines at Airports/Borders
Although customs officers see hundreds of people daily with medical conditions, they still want to check your identity.
Make sure you know enough about your condition and medicines so that you can clearly and confidently answer basic questions. Have your doctor’s phone number on hand just in case, or get him to write a letter as support.
Call the TSAs toll free number (1-855-787-2227) at least 72 hours before traveling to find out more about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at security checkpoints.
Keep All Medicines in Their Original, Labeled Containers
Pill boxes are a great way to sort out your daily medicines. They make it easy for you to see if you have taken your daily dose or not.
Unfortunately, they are a bit of a nightmare when it comes to figuring out which pill is which. For travel purposes, take your original containers with the labels attached as well as your pill box. It may take up a bit more space, but you’ll be glad you did if anything goes wrong.
Put Your Must-Take Medicines in Your Carry-On Luggage
You’ve just got off your 12 hour flight; unkempt, exhausted, and ready for bed.
Sixty minutes later you’re still standing by the luggage carousel, watching the same little blue bag go round and round, and it isn’t yours!
Always, always, carry your must-take medicines with you in your carry on luggage as it can take days to be reunited with lost baggage.
This also applies to important medical devices, such as nebulizers; CPAP, BiPAP or APAP machines. These can be carried in your on-board luggage but must be removed from their carrying case and undergo X-ray screening. Facemasks and tubing may remain in the case. You may provide a clear plastic bag to place the device through the X-ray.
Tylenol May Not Be Called Tylenol in Your Destination Country
Branded medicines are often called different names abroad. For example, the brand of acetaminophen called Tylenol is better known as paracetamol (or Panadol) in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
If you are unable to take enough medicine to last the duration of your trip then ask your pharmacist or doctor to check which comparable brand names are available in your destination country before you go.
Ensure Your Travel Health Insurance Covers Medication Costs
Prescription drugs can be expensive. Even more so if you have a rare condition.
What is expensive in the U.S. is likely to be just as expensive in other countries. Make sure your travel insurance also covers the cost of your medications, and keep a copy of your travel insurance with you at all times while abroad.
Ask For Help From the Local United States Consulate If Necessary
If you are seriously ill or injured and need more help than your travel insurance company can give you, try ringing the local United States consulate for assistance.
They may be able to help locate appropriate medical services, transfer funds on your behalf, and inform your family or friends if need be. However, payment of hospital and other expenses remains your responsibility.
Finished: Top 10 Tips for Traveling With a Medical Condition
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