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Discussing Diabetes

Travel Feature

Written by Lauren Hunsberger

When Dr. Maria Mercado was a young med student, she and her parents were traveling from the Philippines to London when her mother had a major medical scare. She ran out of her diabetes medication and her blood pressure rose dangerously high. “A doctor had to come to our hotel room, and we had no clue what she was taking,” she says. “Then I had to rush on the Tube and get to the nearest pharmacy.” For Mercado, who spoke little English at the time, the experience was unsettling. That event encouraged her to pursue endocrinology, and she now spends a great deal of time educating her patients on how to travel safely with both types of diabetes.

Before the Trip


Make sure you have two times your supply of medications. Carry a list of all your medications written in generic form. You can even have a pharmacy reprint the exact labels and put them in your wallet. Also, be sure to carry all medications in their original containers.


Tell your doctor four to six weeks in advance of traveling. If you need shots, immunizations or vaccines, it’s important to make sure you don’t have a reaction.


If you use an insulin pump, carry an extra. You can call Medtronic ahead of time and get a loaner just for the duration of your trip. Go to their website, and they will mail you one. Be sure to set it up beforehand.

For the Flight


TSA doesn’t require a letter, but some patients feel more comfortable traveling with a doctor’s note explaining why they carry syringes, needles and other testing supplies. If you wear a continuous glucose monitor, you can’t go through the X-rays, so opt for the pat-down method.

The Flight

During takeoff and landing, the air pressure changes can cause insulin pumps to dispense an incorrect amount of insulin. Dr. Mercado suggests turning the pump off for takeoff and landing, and then turning it back on as soon as you hit cruising level.

While There


If you’re going to a non-English-speaking country, learn key phrases in the native language. Learn how to say, “I am diabetic [including the type]” and “Where is the pharmacy?” or “I’m on insulin” and “I have low blood sugar.” It helps to write these phrases down too. Also be aware that different countries use different units of measurement with different values.

Food and Alcohol

Be sure to have snacks on hand if you have a long layover. Alcohol can have all kinds of effects on blood sugar, depending on the sugar content of the drink and type of diabetes. It’s best to keep consumption very low or to avoid altogether.

Emergency Contacts

Have the 800 number of the closest US embassy. Also familiarize yourself with the 911 process of the country you’re visiting. Lastly, carry all your emergency contacts information in your wallet.

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