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Hitting the Road with Diabetes

May 28, 2013

Washington Hospital Seminar Offers Travel Tips

Summer is almost here and for many people, that means vacation time. Travel always requires some planning, but if you have diabetes, planning ahead is particularly important. With testing and medications, there are a lot of details involved that need to be considered.

"I always say the most important part is the preparation before you leave home," said Sandra Mertesdorf, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator at Washington Hospital. "You have to make sure you plan for any medical emergencies that could happen, and take all the necessary supplies and medications with you."

She will offer travel tips at an upcoming seminar titled, "On the Road: Traveling with Diabetes," scheduled for Thursday, June 6, from 7 to 8 p.m. The seminar is part of Washington Hospital's free monthly Diabetes Matters education series and will be held at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West), in Fremont.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or is not able to use it properly. Insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugars and starchy foods into energy. When this process doesn't work properly, glucose in the blood can get too high and lead to complications.

Mertesdorf will walk participants through the planning and preparation that should happen before you head out the door. She said the first thing you should do is make a travel checklist that includes everything you will need, including medicines, supplies, and information.

"We often spend time making lists for clothing, camping gear, and other equipment, but we forget to plan for our health," she said. "You need to sit down and think about what you will need to keep your diabetes under control. I recommend bringing at least twice the amount of medications and supplies that you would normally use in the time you will be gone as well as a backup glucose meter. You can't count on buying what you need. There may not be a pharmacy where you are going and if there is, your particular medication or test strips might not be available. Insulin comes in different strengths outside of the U.S., so you may not be able to fill your prescription."

Packing and storing your medications and supplies while traveling is also important. Insulin needs to be kept cool and should never be carried in the cargo area of a plane or left in the trunk of a hot car. In fact, you should keep all your medications and supplies with you, she added.

Change in Routine

Mertesdorf said the change in routine can affect your diabetes, so it's important to plan for that. For example, you may need more or less insulin than normal to keep blood glucose levels under control depending on what you eat, how active you are, and how much sleep you get.

"Vacations are fun because they take us out of our normal routine, but for people with diabetes, that can be a problem if you don't take that into consideration," she said. "Schedules are different when you are on vacation and you may be traveling to a different time zone. You may be eating different types of food and more of it. Most people walk more and are more active on vacation. All those changes need to be factored in. Because you aren't in your normal routine, you may forget to test or take your insulin. Some people set an alarm on their cell phone or wrist watch to remind them to test or take their medications while on vacation."

You should consult with your physician before making your travel plans to be sure you understand how to manage your diabetes under different circumstances, she added. Mertesdorf recommends getting a letter from your doctor that explains your medical condition and includes your medication requirements and contact information. Depending on your destination, certain immunizations may be needed and your doctor can advise you about that as well.

"You need to know what you should do if your blood sugar gets too high," she added. "How does your physician want you to handle that?"

Mertesdorf said it's also possible that your blood sugar could get too low. She recommends having a fast-acting sugar source such as glucose tablets, hard candy, or juice with you at all times. Having healthy snacks on hand such as cheese and crackers or fruit and nuts can help you keep blood sugar in the normal range.

She recommends letting as many people know about your diabetes as possible and keeping identification on you that stipulates your medical condition. Tell anyone you are traveling with that you have diabetes and notify the airline or cruise line about your condition. Make sure family and friends know where you are going and leave contact information in case of an emergency.

"The bottom line is travel and all the different circumstances that go with it can have a major impact on your diabetes," Mertesdorf concluded. "You need to plan for every possibility so you can relax, enjoy your vacation, and have fun."

To learn more about Diabetes Matters and other diabetes programs at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com/diabetes.