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Travelling with diabetes

PUBLISHED: 13 November 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 4 October 2023

There are things that we all have to think about when we travel, whether it’s a fleeting visit for business, or a well deserved long break, we find ourselves making checklists of all the things we need to remember to pack or do before we go. Being on the move has never been easier - thanks to regular flights, ferries and trains, we’re able to travel wherever, however, and almost whenever we like.  With businesses opening hubs around the world, whole families relocating their lives to new countries, and students gaining international experience as part of their studies, being globally mobile has become part of a lifestyle for many. 

With an estimated 422 million people around the world currently living with diabetes, we wanted to find out more about how to handle travel if you’re diabetic. We spoke to our physiologists and nutritionists, Thomas Rothwell and Georgina Camfield, to find out more about how to take a hassle free trip. 

There are lots of new factors to consider if you, your child or someone you’re travelling with has been recently diagnosed with diabetes; from crossing time-zones and changes in climate to new cuisines and the logistics of the travelling itself.   

Time zones: 

A steady routine can be key if you’re diabetic, as regular meal times help to regulate glucose levels in the blood. There are a few extra things to think about if you’re diabetic and on the move crossing into new time-zones: 

  • Meal times and taking medication – If you can, eat at the times that you would in a regular day – this should be easy enough to do if you’re on a short-haul journey. However, if you’re going on a long-haul trip, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep up with your normal meal times and you’ll need to make some adjustments. Depending on where you’re travelling to, days will be longer or shorter and your meal times could be quite different. 

  • Taking medication – After being in a routine and taking your medication at a set time each day, it can be awkward when your schedule is turned upside down. There are ways to manage your medications when on the move, and these will vary depending on how you treat and manage your diabetes.

    It’s a good idea to speak to a doctor before you set off as they can help you plan a schedule.

    Don’t forget, if you’re on an AXA – global healthcare plan with an outpatient allowance, you’ll have access to a Virtual Doctor at any time, wherever you are in the world. You can find out more about the Virtual Doctor service, here. They’ll be able to go through your itinerary with you and take your flight times, activities and where you’re going into consideration to give you personalised advice that works for you.

  • Jet lag – The key to minimizing jet lag is to try and adjust to your new time zone as quickly as possible. Along with your medication and meal time adjustments, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. For some extra support on managing jet-lag, take a look at our Air Travel Tips, here
New foods: 

We all let loose when we’re on holiday or travelling somewhere new, and why shouldn’t we? Having diabetes shouldn’t hold you back from enjoying yourself and trying new things.  

  • Research – Before you go, take a look at some of the traditional local dishes and their basic nutritional content. This will help you to know what to expect. Most destinations are so culturally diverse nowadays that you’ll have plenty of restaurants and dishes and even cuisines to choose from.   

  • Make sensible choices – Having diabetes doesn’t mean that you have to miss out; you should still be able to try new things and enjoy yourself. It’s all about moderation and being aware of what you’re eating. If you’re having a carb-heavy meal, you could ask the restaurant to make some swaps for some extra vegetables, or even choose dishes that already contain more vegetables and lean meats. When you’re on holiday or in a hot country, ice creams and sugary drinks can be tempting, but they are often high in sugar. Try to choose low sugar alternatives where you can. There are apps available for your phone, such as Carbs and Cals, that can help you to work out the nutritional content of your food. Carbs and Cals even allows you to visually compare the food on your plate to the photos in the app, to quickly see the carbohydrate and calorie content of your meal! 

  • Take more than you need – Make sure that you take extra supplies with you, just in case you need them. It might not be as easy to get hold of replacement kits, medication or insulin in another country. If you’re somewhere unfamiliar and aren’t sure what the medication that you need is called in another language or want to know where to find it, our Virtual Doctor Service could help. The service, provided by Advance Medical, gives you unlimited phone and video consultations with an internationally trained doctor who speaks your language – at a time and place that suits you. You can find out more about the Virtual Doctor service and how to use it, here.

Climate Adjustment: 
If you’re travelling somewhere that’s much warmer than what you’re used to at home, you might need to make some adjustments to keep your blood sugars in check. In hot weather, there’s an increased risk of hypoglycaemia. The hot and humid climate can increase the body’s metabolism, which increases the absorption of insulin. 

  • Keep hydrated – You’ll need to drink more than you usually would if you’re somewhere hot, to make sure you don’t become dehydrated. Drink lots of water where you can; sugary drinks and alcohol can have negative effects on your blood sugar levels. You could be dehydrated if you’re feeling thirsty and have dark yellow urine.
  • Take your readings more often – check your blood sugars more often, just to make sure that you’re staying in a safe range - you might need to make adjustments to your treatment.  It’s a good idea to carry water and some sugary snacks with you, just in case you need them.

  • Try to stay in the shade – not just you, but your glucose monitors, insulin and strips too, as exposure to heat can affect them and your readings could be less accurate. 

Taking a flight when you or someone you’re travelling with has diabetes can mean there are a few extra things to pack and remember.  

  • Make a checklist – In plenty of time before your trip, make a check list of all of your medications, monitors and testing supplies that you will need to take with you.

  • Pack Carefully – Make sure that you have your testing kit, monitor and medications in a bag that’s easy to get to. It’s also a good idea to keep supplies in more than one bag, just in case a bag goes missing or is left somewhere. It could be difficult to find replacement medication or testing kits where you’re going. 

  • Get a letter from your doctor – Diabetes is a worldwide condition and is widely recognised in all countries. Security measures in airports can mean that staff are hyper-vigilant and might want some more information about what you’re carrying and why. In recent years as technology has developed, some glucose monitors aren’t able to go through the x-ray machines that airports use. You’ll need to show the letter from your doctor to explain this. 

  • Wear compression socks – Wearing compression socks help to reduce the risk of developing blood clots when flying. While inflight, move your legs and ankles and if possible, walk about the cabin occasionally. If you’re unsure whether these could be beneficial to you, speak to a doctor before you go – the Virtual Doctor Service is available at anytime, so if you need to speak to a doctor, simply download the app and book a phone call or video consultation at a time and in a language that suits you. You can find out more about this service and whether you’re eligible to use it, here.

With enough planning and management, you should be able to enjoy your time away without any additional stresses or worries. 

If at any point you’re not sure or you just want to check something with a medical professional, our Virtual Doctor Service will be available to answer any questions you might have, or give you trusted advice to put your mind at rest. You don’t need to make a claim for a consultation with a virtual doctor, so you can use the service as often as you like – it won’t affect any of your benefit limits. But if you do need any further treatment, please contact AXA to make sure it’s covered by your health plan.

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.