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Managing diabetes if you’re a frequent flyer
Taking long-haul flights across multiple time zones is not unusual for expats. But when you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, planning your journey in advance can avoid any complications.
Why could traveling be problematic?
A routine is very important when managing diabetes. Eating, sleeping or being physically active at different times of day to normal can affect the body’s routine and lead to unexpected periods of low or high blood sugar.
How to manage time zones when you have diabetes
Dr Job Simon, an endocrinology consultant at Burjeel Hospital in the UAE, says planning ahead is critical: “If you’re travelling across different time zones you’ll need to adjust your medication and meal schedule accordingly, as blood glucose control can be disrupted by the change in time. Before taking the trip you’ll need to visit your doctor and share with them your travel itinerary so they can guide you on how to adjust.”
One approach is to purchase a cheap digital watch (or use your smart phone on airplane mode) to set up drug administration times in your own time zone for when you’re travelling. Also, ensure you eat around your usual eating times when travelling – inform the airlines if necessary.
On reaching your destination, gradually integrate and merge your drug administration times with local time.
Can you take insulin on a plane?
Yes, most airlines will allow you to carry insulin in your hand luggage. You’re also allowed to take your insulin pump and all its supplies (including batteries and cleaning fluids) as long as you have your insulin with you. It’s worth being extra cautious and carrying a doctor’s note confirming your diagnosis (get it translated if you’re going somewhere where you think language might be an issue).
You’re also allowed to take unlimited numbers of unused syringes as long as you’re also carrying your insulin and prescriptions. If you’re worried about flying as a diabetic, contact the airline ahead of your trip.
How much should you pack?
It’s better to be safe than sorry and have enough medication, food and supplies for all eventualities.
You could find yourself spending five hours in an airport because your plane is delayed, or be stuck on the runway when you should be eating, so make sure you’re prepared for this by packing extra snacks, drinks and insulin (or other medication).
The American Diabetes Association recommends packing twice as much as you would normally need. If you’re travelling somewhere with extreme temperatures, take something to store your insulin in so it doesn’t get too hot or cold.
Managing your diabetes in the air
Ask for a low fat and low cholesterol meal when you book your plane ticket. If you need to take insulin before a meal, make sure you can see the food trolley before doing so. Turbulence or an order mix-up could delay your meal and cause you to take your insulin at the wrong time.
Managing your diabetes when you land
If you’re a frequent traveler and have a regular schedule of business or leisure trips, keep a record of how you manage each trip. This will make planning the next one much easier.
Check your blood sugar more often than normal both in the air and on the ground. Low or high blood glucose levels can be mistaken for jet lag, so it’s not worth taking the risk. It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the local healthcare facilities so you know where to go if you need help or extra medication. Blood sugar may be measured in different units in other countries, so carry a conversion card with you to avoid confusion.