How to travel with a medical condition
Date: Jun 2019
While going on holiday can be a relaxing and rewarding experience, if you’re travelling with a chronic or mental illness, it can be particularly stressful. However, with a little planning and guidance, you can still have a safe and enjoyable trip.
Before you travel
See your doctor
If you’re concerned about travelling, it’s recommended you book an appointment with your doctor at least two months in advance to check in to see if it’s safe for you to travel and get the right advice before you take your trip.
This is also a good opportunity to check if any injections are needed and what effect they may have on your body.
Some chronic conditions and medicine can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to travel-related infection.
Your doctor will know about your condition and can help advise and what will happen if you need medical assistance whilst abroad or even within the UK.
Check if your EHIC card is valid
A valid EHIC gives you the right to access state-provided healthcare during your time on holiday in another European country or Switzerland. With all the uncertainty of Brexit, it’s even more crucial to check if you’re covered in certain countries.
If you don’t have one, you can apply for one here.
Travel insurance is a vital part of planning for a trip away, but especially if you are travelling with a chronic illness.
When selecting an insurance policy, always make sure you read the fine print, so you can be 100% certain that you are covered.
There are three aspects to look out for when purchasing travel insurance:
- Trip cancellation insurance – this covers the cost of trip if you have to reschedule or are too sick to travel
- Travel health insurance – this covers the cost of health care you may have to receive in other countries
- Medical evacuation insurance - this covers the cost of transportation to high-quality health care facilities, in the event of an emergency. This type of insurance is especially vital if you are planning to travel to rural or remote locations
Check which one is most suitable to your condition and make sure you shop around to get the best deal for your insurance.
Many insurance providers charge a premium if you suffer from a chronic condition or have an ongoing health issues, but you can often find a better deal if you spend some time researching and comparing quotes. Remember to be honest and disclose any pre-existing medical conditions.
Prepare a first aid health kit
Putting together a small bag of essentials including medicine, your travel insurance documents, and any additional necessities and having them ready in your hand luggage can really help you feel better prepared for your journey.
Learn basic language terms
Travelling overseas could mean a language barrier, so it’s good to be extra prepared and learn basic terms in another language and make a note of emergency services numbers abroad.
Can you take medicine abroad?
Different countries have varying rules about what you medicine you can and cannot bring in, and the maximum quantity allowed per traveller.
Don’t assume that UK over the counter medicine e.g. paracetamol will be accepted and readily available in other places around the world. Countries such as India, Pakistan and Turkey have a list of medicines they won't allow into the country.
If you’ve done your research but you’re still really unsure, contact the foreign embassies in the UK who will help answer any queries you have before you travel.
How to store your medicine when travelling
Check your specific airline’s policies before travelling to ensure you follow the right procedure when it comes to travelling with medicine.
Most airlines suggest you carry your medicine in your hand luggage with a copy of your prescription, and a spare supply if you’re travelling with multiple luggage – just in case your hand luggage gets misplaced.
It’s also important to check your expiry dates on all your medicine to ensure they are valid for your entire visit abroad.
Some medicine also needs to be stored at room temperature (below 25C) or in the fridge, so if you’re travelling to a country with a hot climate, ask a pharmacist for advice on this, as you may need to take an insulated pouch or a cool bag to keep your medicine in.
Accommodation can make or break your stay so it’s important to look online and check photos in the first instance. If you are concerned about any facilities (or lackthereof) then it’s definitely worth calling the hotel or travel group with any queries so you have peace of mind.
Some general things to look for:
Is there are pharmacy nearby?
Does it cater to your dietary requirements?
Does your accommodation have air conditioning or a balcony?
Is it easily accessible? – both in terms of getting there and accessing your entrance such as lifts or wheelchair access?
If your medical condition affects your ability to drive in the UK, chances are you may not be able to drive abroad with a medical condition.
Ask your doctor if it’s safe to drive before you book a car and name yourself as a driver and check the laws in the place you’re travelling to, as these vary from country to country.
Pack your awareness bracelet
Charities such as Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation give away free awareness bracelets, which can help people identify your medical needs in an emergency situation.
At the airport/on route
The airport can be a stressful part of your journey, with all the check in points and getting through security and then boarding the plane.
Anxiety over flying
Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and check in online if you are only flying with hand luggage to save time.
Wear loose, comfortable clothes and skip the coffee and wine, as caffeine and alcohol that provoke anxiety before your flight. Take deep breaths and inform anyone who’s flying with you to your fear of flying so that they can help you if you start to panic.
If your anxiety is really severe, you could opt for a fear of flying course, ran by various leading airlines, including Easy Jet, Virgin Atlanic, and British Airways to help put your mind at ease. Hypnotherapy is also an option to help with fear over flying.
Motion sickness is also common when travelling, especially on a boat or in a car. Symptoms include starting to feel dizzy and nauseous when you start to move.
If you’re in a car, break up your journey and take regular breaks to get some fresh air and put the window down to let fresh air into the car. It also helps to look straight ahead at a fixed point and closing your eyes and breathing slowly, allowing your body to realise that you’re safe.
If you remember, take some ginger with you in the form of a biscuit, tea or tablet, which also helps with motion sickness.
Deep vein thrombosis
Any long journey over four hours on a plane, train, car or bus can increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), as blood flows poorly and pools in the leg when you sit down for long periods of time.
You are at extra risk of DVT if:
- You’ve had an operation in the last two months
- You are pregnant
- You have a history of VDT or pulmonary embolism
- If you’ve been taking the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy
- You’re overweight
- You have a blood clotting disorder
Try walking up and down the aisle on the plane or keep a clear space in front of you so you can stretch out your legs. It also helps to exercise your calf muscles regularly during your journey or purchase compression hosiery if you’re at risk.
Travelling with allergies
As with any medical conditions, travelling with an allergy can be very daunting for you and your loved ones. Simple tasks such as choosing accommodation, booking flights, etc. can suddenly seem like a big challenge with lots of questions involved.
If you’re looking to eat on your flight, it’s best to check each airline’s policy on snacks and meals, as this varies from airline to airline, so ask in advance whether it’s possible to take your own safe snacks on your flight.
It’s also advisable to inform the airline staff of your allergies when you board so they are aware to keep certain foods at a distance.
Allergic to pets? Make sure your accommodation is pet-free and if you’re travelling in the UK see if you can take your own bed sheets and find out where your nearest emergency services are and that the venue meets your dietary requirements.
On your holiday
How to protect yourself from the sun
It’s so important to protect yourself from the sun when you go on holiday. Sun burn can really ruin your trip and can also lead to skin cancer.
A few things you can do to keep yourself safe:
- Apply sun cream protection at regular intervals at least 15 mins before you go out in the sun and reapply regularly especially after swimming
- Be generous with the amount of cream you put on and try to apply the highest SPF cream available - a half application of an SPF 30 sunscreen only provides an effective SPF of 5.5 so it’s worth remembering this when applying your sun protection
- Don’t spend all day sat or walking around exposed in the sun
- Aim for shade to keep your body cool in the sun
- Once in doors, apply a soothing after sun lotion or spray containing aloe vera
How to deal with heat stroke & heat exhaustion
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include a temperature of 38oC or above, feeling faint and/or dizzy, headache, tiredness, sweating, urinating less, nausea, and vomiting. If you feel this way, try to cool down and see how you feel within 30 minutes.
Heat stroke may occur if heat exhaustion isn’t treated properly, and you feel start to feel restless and confused and start to have hot flushes and dry skin, as well as a fast pulse, dizziness and a temperature of over 40oc.
Drink plenty of water, lie down in the shade and spray your face and body with water to help you cool down quicker. If you suspect you or a loved one has heat stroke, call the emergency services immediately and if they lose consciousness, place them in the recovery position.
Swimming with eczema
Many different environments can trigger eczema, including chemicals from the pool, but swimming should be an enjoyable part of your holiday.
To help with eczema on holiday:
- Avoid swimming if your or your child’s eczema continues to flare up
- If swimming indoors, apply emollient cream or ointment before entering the pool – apply more than usual to create a strong barrier to the water
- If swimming outdoors, please be aware that sunscreen may become diluted by emollient cream properties, so limit your time in the pool and reapply at regular intervals
- As soon as possible after swimming, shower off using your usual emollient wash/oil/gel. Then apply more leave-on cream than usual
Eating & drinking abroad
When travelling to a foreign country, there are a few things to consider when eating and drinking. As soon as you arrive at your destination, confirm whether the water is safe to drink from the tap and if not, try to stick to bottled water and avoid drinks with ice in bars and restaurants.
Beware that trying new foods and changing your diet habits when on holiday can lead to an upset stomach and might trigger certain reactions. When travelling to hot countries in particular, keep an eye out for food that looks as though it has been left out in the sun and act with caution when trying fresh fruit and vegetables, as they may contain parasites.
This is one of the most common holiday illnesses and most likely to occur within your first week of travel. This can be caused by bacteria such as E.coli or salmonella, parasites, or viruses like norovirus. These can all be spread by eating or drinking contaminated food and water and if you come into contact with contaminated cutlery and crockery.
If your bowel movements are loose without other symptoms, this can be caused by a change in diet.
To avoid this, wash your hands thoroughly before eating and drinking and avoid uncooked meat, shellfish, eggs, salad and peeled fruit. Also, be careful when choosing places to swim and try to avoid swallowing pool water where possible.
Diarrhoea should clear up by itself without specific treatment and by drinking plenty of fluids, but if your problem persists or you are concerned, visit your local pharmacist.
Insect bites and stings
Insect bites are very common abroad and diseases are transmitted by insects in tropical and subtropical countries. Insect bites can cause itching, discomfort and your skin can become infected through scratching. With insect bites, prevention is important so make sure you cover up exposed skin with loose clothing and use insecticide mosquito nets to avoid bites.
If you discover a bite, wash the area with soap and water, alcohol gel or antiseptic and use a cold compress to reduce the swelling. An oral antihistamine or tropical corticosteroid cream or spray will also help to reduce itching, but if the swelling worsens or you have difficulty breathing, seek medical assistance.
Take a note of emergency services numbers & pharmacies
As previously mentioned, make sure you find out any emergency services and locate your nearest pharmacy and hospital when abroad. If you cannot speak the language, ask a local who speaks English to help you with this.
How to practice wellbeing whilst away
Going away can be so rewarding but if you suffer with mental health issues, you may find yourself feeling depressed or anxious whilst away from familiar surroundings.
If this starts to happen and you feel like you’re missing home, try a variety of these methods:
- Take a deep breath and remember where you are and that you are in a safe situation
- Try simple stretching and yoga techniques to bring yourself back to the present scenario
- Call your loved ones and tell them how much you miss them and discuss your holiday so far
- Avoid social media, as it is only a snippet of people’s actual lives and you may see something that makes you feel like you’ve missed out in the moment
- If you’re inside, go outdoors for a walk or a swim to wind down with nature
Hopefully, this guide will be useful and if you or a loved one are travelling with a medical condition, this article will help you feel better prepared for your big trip!
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Next review: 6 June 2022