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Have Diabetes, Can Fly

Adjusting Insulin and Monitoring Blood Glucose Levels in the Air

The world has definitely become a smaller place with jetting across country and across multiple time zones within the span of a few hours or days commonplace. We both fly frequently, on the average every couple of months, and no matter whether we're flying a few hours or upwards of a day, we do so safely and arrive with our diabetes still in tight control.

It does take some pre-planning and consultation with our physicians, but that's a small sacrifice in lieu of being able to travel anywhere we want, whenever we want.

Here are some general guidelines that we follow:

  • At least 2 weeks before (6 weeks if flying overseas), we meet with our doctor for a quick check-up and to discuss any concerns.
  • At least 1 week in advance of travel, we order any prescription refills, requesting a vacation "override" if necessary from our insurance provider.
  • If you are leaving the United States, check with your insurance to make sure you're covered outside of the country. If you're not covered outside of the US, there are temporary medical policies that will cover you when you're travelling internationally.
  • Check with your airline regarding their policy on carrying insulin syringes and testing lancets aboard the airplane. With tightened security, don't assume what was last month, still is.
  • If you take insulin, have your doctor write down a schedule for you to follow during the flight and once again when you land.  This is to compensate for crossing different time zones. Take your itinerary with you and figure up beforehand what time zones you will be crossing and what meals will be served.
  • Frequent blood glucose monitoring is essential for safety during flight. Test every 4 to 6 hours when traveling, keeping yourself well hydrated with non-alcoholic, caffeine-free beverages throughout the flight.
  • Be sure to have more than enough of your prescriptions and diabetes testing equipment packed in your carry-on bag. Don't forget extra batteries for your glucose testing meter. For insulin pump users, this means pump supplies, extra batteries, and insulin and syringe in case of pump failure. Never put these into checked luggage. Baggage stored in cargo holds can be subjected to extreme temperature changes that may alter the effectiveness of your medications or testing devices.
  • Carry suitable snacks such as crackers, dried fruits, or nuts to eat if meals are delayed or to supplement meals when necessary.
  • Whenever it's safe to do so, get up and walk about the cabin during the flight to prevent deep vein thrombosis or DVT, a condition in which a blood clot develops in one of the legs. Symptoms of DVT include pain or tenderness of the calf muscles; swelling of the leg, especially on just one side (don't confuse this with the normal swelling of the feet that most people experience when flying, a result of gravity that will soon disappear upon landing); increased skin temperature of the leg; and dilation of the veins right below the skin of the leg. If you should experience any of these symptoms, alert a member of the flight crew immediately. If you don't notice it until after arrival, seek medical attention at once.
  • If you need medical assistance abroad, check with your hotel, agencies such as American Express, the nearest United States Embassy or local medical schools for a list of English-speaking doctors. A list of physicians practicing in foreign countries can also be obtained before your trip from the International Association of Medical Assistance to Travelers at www.iamat.org.
Updated on: October 17, 2012
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