Crohn’s disease and international travel: a guide

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Crohn’s disease is a long-term disease that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease include diarrhea, stomach cramps, and abdominal pain. These symptoms can make some aspects of international travel difficult for someone with Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

People with IBD, including Crohn’s disease, may experience some anxieties associated with international travel. A survey of people with IBD found that 30% of people said IBD limited their travel and 40% said it affected their choice of destination.

There are a number of things a person can do to relieve some of the stress associated with traveling with Crohn’s disease.

In this article, we outline some things that a person should consider before traveling. We also offer tips that can help make international travel less stressful.

A person with Crohn’s disease may fear that if they travel abroad, they will not be able to receive specialized medical care if they need it.

One way to eliminate this anxiety in advance is to identify the medical specialists who are in the location (s) the person is going to visit.

A person can contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT). This organization aims to minimize the risks related to the health of travelers. It is able to provide its members with a list of English speaking doctors in a number of different countries.

A person may also wish to contact the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country they are planning to visit. These organizations should be able to provide a list of doctors and health care providers that a person can use if needed.

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, some embassies and consulates may even provide the names and information of local specialists.

If a person has Crohn’s disease, they may find the flight stressful due to the need to regularly access a bathroom. Here are some strategies:

In the plane

A person can try to reserve a seat on the plane that is in the aisle. This means that they won’t have to ask someone to stand up when they go to the bathroom.

They may also wish to reserve a seat as close to the aircraft washroom as possible.

At the arrival

Finding bathrooms abroad is also something people may want to consider.

There are a number of things a person can do to make this easier, including:

  • learn to say certain words and phrases in the native language of the country to make it easier to find and access a bathroom
  • download translation apps to their smartphone to facilitate communication
  • buy pocket electronic translators to facilitate communication

A person may also wish to travel with a number of things which can help in certain situations. These include:

  • a personal supply of toilet paper
  • soothing wipes
  • ointments
  • plastic bags for disposal or storage of soiled clothing
  • additional changes of underwear and clothing
  • hand sanitizer in bottles small enough to pass airport security

It is very important that a person with Crohn’s disease travels with their prescription medication and brings enough for the entire trip. They should take prescribed medications throughout their trip to avoid symptom flare-ups.

Here are some other prescription drug tips:

At the airport

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation recommends that people with Crohn’s disease ask their doctor for a typed and signed statement describing their medical history. They say it can be helpful if customs officials are wondering why the person is traveling with medication.

It is a good idea to take medications on the plane in their carry-on baggage. This ensures that the person will have their medication with them even if the airline loses their checked baggage.

Out and about

A person may want to bring a pill box with them so that they can carry smaller amounts of medication throughout the day. This allows them to leave the rest of the medicine in its original container in a safe place when they go out.

A person with Crohn’s disease may need to visit a medical center abroad during their trip. This means that it is a good idea for people traveling outside of the United States to make sure that they have medical insurance that covers them in a number of situations.

A person may wish to purchase an insurance package that covers:

  • emergency room visits
  • visits to doctors and other health professionals
  • prescription drugs
  • other medical services they might need

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s IBD Help Center can help provide a person with a list of international medical insurance resources.

Learn more about Medicare Advantage and international travel here.

It is important that a person with Crohn’s disease is prepared and knows what to do in a medical emergency. They could share this information with people traveling with them.

This includes:

  • get a written action plan from their doctor outlining what to do if their condition worsens while they are away
  • know before travel what access to the toilet looks like, including whether buses and trains have one
  • inform the airline of their condition before travel so that staff can meet all dietary needs and help in an emergency
  • keep their doctor’s information, including their phone number, on them at all times
  • keep their insurance information with them at all times

Learn what to do during a Crohn’s Flare here.

Airport screening and security can be stressful for someone with Crohn’s disease.

A person is legally permitted to take ostomy supplies through security checkpoints at airports. It is important that a person with an ostomy alerts security personnel so that they can react accordingly. They are trained to handle it with sensitivity and to adapt to people’s medical needs.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offers information to travelers with health problems on its website. The TSA may also offer downloadable medical cards for people with special medical needs. A person can then show this card to security personnel in order to inform them that they may need a special check.

A person with Crohn’s disease may have to carry liquid medications or nutritional supplements that exceed 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters). This means that they must have a written statement of their needs from a doctor or the TSA to ensure they can get it through the security checkpoint.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), travelers’ diarrhea is the most predictable travel-related illness. The CDC says it affects between 30% and 70% of travelers, depending on where and when they travel.

People with Crohn’s disease are more likely to experience diarrhea because of their condition. This means that they may wish to take a number of steps to avoid diarrhea while traveling, including:

  • avoid drinking tap water
  • if they have to drink tap water, boil it first
  • drink only bottled mineral water
  • using bottled mineral water to brush your teeth
  • not letting the water from the shower enter your mouth
  • do not swallow water while swimming
  • avoid ice in drinks
  • do not eat raw vegetables and salad
  • do not eat raw meat, fish or shellfish
  • do not consume unpasteurized and uncooked dairy products
  • not to eat food from a street vendor

Treat traveler’s diarrhea

If someone with Crohn’s disease gets traveler’s diarrhea, there are things they can do to reduce symptoms, including:

  • drink plenty of safe fluids
  • taking extra salt, which can help prevent dehydration
  • taking over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications, after consulting their doctor

Learn more tips for treating diarrhea quickly here.

Here are some practical tips that can help a person traveling with Crohn’s disease:

  • Arrive early at the airport: If a person arrives 2-3 hours before their flight, they should have more time to go through security checkpoints and use the toilet several times before boarding the plane.
  • Have pocket change available: Some airports in other countries may charge a nominal fee to people who use public toilets. Having rooms readily available can make it easier to access bathrooms.
  • Have an “I can’t wait” card: These cards contain language and information that can help a person with Crohn’s disease get instant access to a bathroom. This can help them explain why it is a medical requirement for that person to be the first in line for a bathroom. It can also help a person use an employee bathroom in an emergency.
  • Take foods that do not make symptoms worse: When abroad, a person may not always have access to the types of food they can tolerate. It may be a good idea to pack food and snacks so that they have an option if they are stuck with only certain foods available.
  • Bring a change of clothes: It’s a good idea to pack a change of underwear and clothes for changing in an emergency. A person should also pack plastic bags for storing soiled clothing.
  • Pack additional medications: A person should take extra medication so that they do not run out if they lose any during their trip. It is also worth bringing all medications in hand luggage so that they are not left without medication if the airline loses their luggage.

Here is a checklist of things a person with Crohn’s disease may want to take with them on international trips:

Crohn’s disease can mean that a person needs to do more to prepare for international travel. A person with Crohn’s disease may have anxiety about finding a toilet, being on a plane for long periods of time, and seeing how foreign cuisine can impact their symptoms.

They may also worry about finding emergency medical care abroad.

There are a number of things that a person can do to make their travel easier. They can find information from health professionals in the area they will be visiting. They can also pack their bags with their circumstances in mind, bringing a change of clothes, plastic bags, hand sanitizer, snacks and their own personal supply of toilet paper.

It is also important that a person with Crohn’s disease has the right travel insurance to have coverage for all eventualities.


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