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Air Travel and Type 1 Diabetes

Jun 18, 2013

Recently in flight, a handsome, young man next to me interrupted my journal reading to ask if I had diabetes. He noticed the title of my journal.  After clarifying my connection as a diabetes educator who does not have diabetes, we began a flight-long conversation about his type 1 diabetes and his lifetime goals.  He was headed to a sports camp to help kids with type 1 diabetes. He shared his experiences with having type 1 diabetes and playing college football.  As our conversation continued, he stated he was feeling “low.”  While alerting the stewardess to his need for some juice, I asked him if I could get his glucometer for him. Oh, he packed it in his checked luggage.  What about any glucose tabs that might be reachable?  Oh, he did not have any of those or any other treatments with him either. 

I cannot say that I was shocked by the lack of preparedness, but we did have a “teachable” moment once the juice had been consumed and he was feeling more himself again.

There is a major, additional layer of preparedness that should be front and center for every person with type 1 diabetes.  The articles, “Bon Voyage,” (Diabetes Forecast, May 2012) and “Traveling with Diabetes” (Diabetes Self-Management, November/December 2012) had a great list of what to take while traveling.  Both can be provided to patients to help remind them what to pack prior to travel.

Traveling through the airport gauntlet also presents a challenge with medical equipment such as pumps, syringes and insulin.  Websites that contain helpful, downloadable travel information for our patients include TSA, American Diabetes Association and pump companies.  I often find handing patients a copy rather than referring them to the website is helpful and gives them one less thing to do prior to leaving on their trip!

Once through security, an additional concern for insulin pump wearers is the potential for excess insulin delivery during ascent (King et al, 2011).  According to this research group, rapid atmospheric pressure reduction causes a predictable unintended insulin delivery of up to 0.7 u of insulin.  This article is worth reading and sharing with patients wearing insulin pumps.  Research on glucometers suggests that meter readings are accurate during plane travel (Oleju et al, 2012). 

The more daring the trip (e.g., traveling to 3rd world countries or heading for the back country for weeks at a time), the more planning and preparedness we have to work through with our patients.  We, as educators, should question patients about their summer travel plans.  Helping patients be proactive and providing them with resources helps them plan the “diabetes part” of their trip. We can help them stay safe and enjoy their travels. 

Do you have a favorite diabetes travel resource you share with your patients?  Please share it with us!

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  1. Jun 19, 2013

    Great post Carla! I travel regularly with my insulin pump and CGMs. I have gone through endless pat downs and security checks. Finally, at the advice of a fellow T1 I disconnected my insulin pump and put it in with my "liquids" and passed it through the scanner. I placed the receiver of my Dexcom in my purse and also passed it through. I realized this is not recommended, but I was late to catch a flight and every minute counted. Everything turned out fine and I was out of security in 5 minutes (the quickest I've ever made it through security). I continue to do this and no longer bother with the pat down and the extra 20 minutes of questioning. Nothing has happened to my pump or CGMs for going through the scanner. While I understand we're supposed to do the pat down - not everybody can spare the extra 20 minutes each and every time. I do agree all things diabetes go on the carry on - and I travel with a full bottle of glucose tabs for this reason. It's a good lesson to learn and I hope the young traveler will remember next time! Molly McElwee, RN, CDE

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