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5 Tips for Traveling With a Chronically Ill Friend or Relative
Learn pro tips for making your next trip with a loved one safe, smooth and pain-free.
Carefully evaluate your travel companion's needs and assess whether his or her desired location offers easy accessibility. (Getty Images)
As any jet-setter with a chronic illness can attest, crisscrossing the globe with an underlying condition can quickly turn into a nightmare. Mustering up the courage to endure the potential nausea, dizziness and unexpected flare-ups or side effects is enough to make anyone with a serious medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma consider forgoing travel altogether. But if you have a relative with a chronic illness who is eager to travel, take heart: With a few pointers, precautions and some strategic planning, you can help organize a gratifying and stress-free trip.
[See: 10 Tips for a Healthier Vacation.]
Seek Guidance From a Primary Provider or a Pretravel Medical Advisor
Your travel companion must meet with a primary health care provider to ensure the illness is as stable as possible, says Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, travelers' health consultant to the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC and a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine. She also suggests those with underlying conditions seek pretravel counseling four to six weeks ahead of their trip to ensure the provider can offer "adequate counseling and whatever immunizations they need." Scheduling a time to receive a consultation far in advance allows your companion to weigh any side effects, potential drug interactions and other medical-related concerns. Also plan to research accredited hospitals where your relative can receive quality care before your trip. The Department of State features a list of insurance providers overseas and the International Society of Travel Medicine showcases a directory of health care professionals in more than 80 countries.
A doctor's note is also vital, along with "specifics about the traveler's illness, potential complications, recent and past medical history and all medications currently being taken, including the dosage and trade name," says Dr. William Spangler, global medical director of travel insurance group AIG Travel. This is particularly important in the event of an emergency, he explains. Make sure the note outlines "why they might be carrying needles, oxygen or special medication," he adds, as this is important during airport security screenings for a smoother process. Spangler also recommends asking a doctor about supplies to pack. "Some people may need to bring oxygen on the flight to compensate for the pressurized air, while others may be required to wear compression socks to avoid deep vein thrombosis," he explains.
Strategically Choose a Destination and Itinerary
Before you lock in your travel plans, carefully evaluate your companion's needs and assess whether his or her desired location offers easy accessibility. Sometimes, the travel itself, the destination or the itinerary can create added pressure for a person with a chronic illness, Kozarsky says. Structure an itinerary that is compatible with the individual's needs and takes into account any restrictions pertaining to pre-existing conditions, she advises.
It's also important for travelers to understand their limits, Spangler says. For instance, consider skipping a strenuous 12-hour hike if you're traveling with a loved one with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he says. Also take into account that a friend or relative with an immunodeficiency disorder is more at risk of contracting infectious illnesses, especially when flying as air is recirculated, he explains. He suggests conducting some prior research about your desired destination and reviewing the latest travel advisories and warnings available from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You'll also want to factor in practicalities during the trip-planning process, such as the distance from your accommodations to your desired activities and attractions and your access to clean drinking water, adds Suzan Fischbein, a coordinator at the Myositis Support Group at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Make sure to pace yourself, and build in regular down time, she adds.
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Pack Smart and Stay Prepared
Before jetting off with a family member with an underlying medical condition, pack strategically. Bring a brief medical record and a health kit that's filled with medical supplies and prescriptions, along with any other items required based on your companion's needs and the length of travel, Kozarsky says. You may want to consider putting an alert bracelet on your companion with details about his or her condition as an extra precaution.
Also ensure all required medications are in your carry-on and within easy reach. A top task for travel companions is ensuring that the traveler with the illness has adequate medication, she explains. If you're going away for two weeks, for example, she recommends doubling the dosage you bring with you to stay prepared in the event of an emergency so you have an adequate supply in the event of exacerbations. And while flying, ensure your companion wears loosefitting clothing and stays hydrated.
Jan Favero Chambers, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association, suggests helping your companion adjust his or her sleep patterns to easily acclimate to new time zones. Anticipate fatigue, temperature changes and a lack of public seating during your trip, which can be highly strenuous, she says. As a travel partner, you should also be aware of all conditions and easily be able to pinpoint medications, doctor's notes and other emergency information, Spangler says.
Advocate for Your Companion
According to Fischbein, a top issue those with chronic illnesses face while traveling is invisibility. To ensure your relative is cared for from point A to B, alert your carrier ahead of time, she says. The Air Carrier Access Act protects those with disabilities. Thanks to the act, airlines must offer consumers with a disability assistance boarding and exiting the plane. Fischbein recommends calling customer service at least 48 hours ahead of your departure time for assistance getting through security and picking up luggage and alerting your airline to any special assistance for your family member.
Invest in Travel Insurance
Those with chronic conditions want to make sure they have travel insurance, Kozarsky says. There are three major types of insurance – trip-cancellation insurance, medical health insurance and medical evacuation coverage – and it's important to evaluate each option to identify the one that best fits their needs. She suggests reading the fine print, as some policies do not include the cost of health care overseas and others require supplemental insurance.
"While health insurance policies may provide some level of medical coverage for travelers, they’re rarely as comprehensive as travel insurance. Before taking a trip, talk to an insurance provider to ensure the policy purchased adequately covers the traveler’s specific needs," Spangler says. He recommends paying close attention to stipulations around pre-existing conditions and coverage limits. "For example, a helicopter evacuation could cost $50,000 or more, but some policies would cover only a small portion of that, while others wouldn’t cover it at all," he says.
Some insurance providers also offer added perks. With an AIG Travel insurance policy, you can benefit from round-the-clock assistance, including "locating pharmacies, doctors or medical equipment rental facilities at a traveler’s destination," Spangler says. Other companies offer similar benefits. Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, for example, offers an ExactCare Extra plan with up to $50,000 in emergency medical coverage, along with trip-cancellation and interruption coverage and 24-hour assistance that includes flight rebookings, roadside assistance and other perks.
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