Planning for travel can be a daunting process when you have extra needs. When I studied abroad in Chile during the summer of 2019, my diagnosis was still pretty new for me. At the time, my symptoms were under control, but I still carried the fear of “what if I start to flare-up while traveling?” This was a valid fear, but I ended up learning a few steps along the way to mitigate the possibility of putting myself in a flare.
Usually, stressful situations or change trigger my UC symptoms and thankfully during my travels to Chile I had no issues. I was pleasantly surprised! Maintaining my diet was the next challenge that I had to overcome. I chose to stay with a host family because I knew that I would be getting the freshest meals instead of eating out all the time and risking food poisoning. My doctor made sure I knew to only eat fully cooked foods (not from street vendors) and to drink clean water. Any sort of contaminated food or water would pose a dangerous risk to my intestines that were already in the midst of healing.
One week before I was supposed to travel back to the States, I fell into a flare quickly and painfully. The combination of all the sweets I was eating could no longer be tolerated by my body, no matter how tempting it was. I stayed in my homestay almost the entire last week of my trip because I was running to the bathroom about 7-10 times per day. I started feeling weak, fatigued and debated going home even earlier. I gave my host mom a list of the foods I could eat while in a flare and she did an amazing job of cooking healthy meals and checking up on me. It was hard to explain my condition in another language, but I came prepared to explain in Spanish in case this ever did happen.
On the 10-hour plane ride back to the States, I struggled. I was running to the tiny airplane bathroom almost every hour and got zero sleep. The girl sitting next to me even got meals for me because I was stuck in the bathroom when the meal cart came around. I drank a lot of tea on that flight to stay hydrated, but could not eat much. I just kept telling myself that I would be home soon and prayed that I would make it through the rest of my flights back to Reno. I did return home safe and sound and immediately scheduled a visit with my doctor to discuss a new treatment plan.
For those of you with chronic illness and planning to travel, here is some advice I can offer as someone who has been in your shoes:
- First, talk to your doctor before you depart. Plan to get a full supply of all your medications or vitamins before you leave and pack them in your carry-on. I put mine in my checked bag, which got separated from me, therefore causing me a boatload amount of stress and anxiety that I would not be able to take my medication on time.
- Take with you anything you use to help treat a flare-up, such as a heating pad, tea, Pedialyte, blankets, etc. These items will bring you comfort if you do end up needing them.
- Bring healthy snacks for the trip that you know will agree with your stomach.
- If you are flying on a plane, tell the flight attendant about your situation so they are aware and can be accommodating to you.
- When eating out at a restaurant, pick the healthiest meal on the menu to avoid any complications. Avoid eating at street vendors as these foods can often be contaminated.
- Drink purified water. If you know the tap water is not safe to drink, don’t drink it.
- Have the phone numbers of your doctor at home and any local hospitals handy in case you need them.
- Don’t feel guilty for needing to change your plans or have others accommodate you. Your health is at stake and should always come first.
- Review the advice from the CDC for travelers with chronic illness.
I hope these tips bring you ease if you are planning an upcoming trip. People with chronic illness can still travel and see all the things they want to see. Don’t hold yourself back because you think you cannot do it. Believe in yourself and be adventurous, but not so adventurous that you put your health in jeopardy! If you want to read more about my adventures in Chile, you can start with this previous blog post from May 2019.
Are you planning a trip for the post-COVID world? What steps are you taking to stay safe and mitigate potential flare-ups?