FLYING WITH DIABETES
Tips for managing your diabetes up in the air
Now that you’ve gone through airport security with all of your diabetes supplies, you’re ready to board! And here are a few things you might want to know about air travel and diabetes (click and jump to any part):
Before we enter the subject, have you read our first article about Diabetes at the airport? Know your rights before you fly, and don’t forget to get your diabetes travel insurance!
DOES FLYING AFFECT DIABETES?
To be honest, the answer is yes. In many ways. But a few simple things will help you manage it. Several factors can affect your blood sugar when flying with diabetes: stress, altitude, change of atmospheric pressure, food, tiredness, dehydration, etc.
But don’t worry: there’s a lot you can do to minimize the impact of those factors and to stabilize your blood sugar levels while flying.
Diabetic or not, if you’ve ever travelled by plane before, there is no need for us to remind you how bad the food can be up there! To try and get the healthiest options, especially on long-haul flights, you can either request a diabetic menu to your airline company in advance, or decide to bring your own food.
DIABETES-FRIENDLY FOOD AND AIRLINE COMPANIES
When booking your flight, some airline companies will give you the option to request a Diabetic Menu in advance (often at a higher price…). It could be a good option. And it could not be one.
Airline companies are no nutritionists, and their so-called “diabetic menus” may sometimes very well be a complete nutritional disaster! And don’t get surprised if, once on board, they inform you that an unfortunate mistake occurred and your requested diabetic menu has not been boarded… It happens quite a lot!
Our advice? Always bring some healthy back up food on the plane with you. That way, you won’t depend on anybody else to balance out your meals and manage your blood sugar levels while up in the air!
If you want to bring your own diabetes-friendly meals on board with you, Consumer Reports has published a useful updated list of food items allowed through airport security. You can check it out right here!
In any case, whether you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, and whether you’re on insulin or tablets, just keep taking the same treatment and dosage you usually do.
And don’t forget to pack the 3 following foods: your hypoglycaemia kit, some high-carb foods, and low-carb snacks.
In case you have hypoglycaemia while on the plane, you’ll need to act fast. You cannot depend on the flight staff to come and give you sugar. You’ll need to have your own usual hypo snacks with you, and ON you. Do not store it in the overhead compartment: in case of turbulence, you won’t be allowed to access it, EVEN if you have an hypo.
Always keep on you your usual glucose tablets if that’s what you use, or chocolate bar, fruit juice, glucose gel, or even you glucagon kit if you happen to have experienced strong hypoglycaemia before.
In case you experience particularly low blood sugars and have difficulties to get it back up, you’ll need to ingest some high carb food to help stabilize your glycaemia. Think about cereal bars, oatmeal, whole bread, whole grains biscuits etc.
You’ll also want to have some low carb snacks if you need to kill sudden hunger but don’t want your sugars to soar as high as your plane. Airline companies usually don’t have many sugar-free snack options…So don’t forget to bring your own.
Here are some low carb snacks ideas that are easy to find at airport stores: cheese, dried meat, nuts, sugar-free yogurt, prepared salad, etc.
INSULIN AND AIRPLANE TRAVEL
As we said on the first part of this article, you can bring insulin, and insulin cooler cases, on the plane with you. Remember that you should never stop taking your regular insulin injections, even while flying with diabetes.
Using insulin pens or vials, and wearing an insulin pump, do require some adjustments while flying with diabetes though.
DISCONNECT AND RECONNECT
There’s no scientific evidence about the following. But some studies have shown that the pressure difference at takeoff and landing on a plane can disturb the functioning of the pump and make it deliver more or less insulin than it should.
To avoid any inconveniences/problems, your best option is to simply disconnect your insulin pump before takeoff and landing. Once the plane has reached its cruising altitude, the pressure stabilizes, and you can certainly reconnect your insulin pump for the duration of your flight. Just check for air bubbles that altitude changes may have caused.
You’ll need to perform that whole disconnect/reconnect process again before and after landing, for the exact same reasons!
INSULIN PENS AND VIALS:
For the same reasons as explained above, do not forget to prime your insulin pen before any injection while on the plane. To prime your pen, turn the dose knob to select 2 units, hold your pen with the needle pointing up, and inject in the air. This should eliminate the air bubbles. You should do that every time you’re making an injection while flying with diabetes.
ON THE PLANE WITH DIABETES:
A few more tricks!
CHECK YOUR BLOOD GLUCOSE AS OFTEN AS NEEDED
While flying with diabetes, remember to check your blood sugar levels regularly. We have not found any certain explanation as to why, but blood sugar levels tend to rise up while flying at high altitudes.
Personally, on long-haul flights, I very often have problems getting my blood glucose down. You might have to use a little bit more insulin than usual. Be patient and drink plenty of water: it will go back to normal a few hours after landing.
STAY WELL HYDRATED FOR A BETTER DIABETES CONTROL
Staying hydrated is one of the key points of a healthy trip, and will definitely help you more than you think while flying with diabetes. Flying can dehydrate you, which causes your metabolism to slow down and have difficulties functioning normally. This may lead to trouble processing sugars, and ultimately to higher blood sugar levels. Some studies have shown that dehydration does have the effect of raising blood sugar levels.
Remember to drink at least one glass of water per hour during your flight.
WEAR COMFORTABLE CLOTHING
It may seem insignificant, but it is really important to choose the right clothing when traveling by plane with diabetes. Feeling comfortable is one of the keys to relaxing. And relaxing is definitely one of the keys to good diabetes management. So forget about your new fancy tight jeans, and do your health a favor by wearing some loose, comfortable clothes!
Use tight flight socks
No need to remind you how important blood circulation is, especially with the blood sugar variations we diabetic travellers usually experience. Many people experience swelling of the legs or feet on a plane. It’s nothing to worry too much about, but it could lead to Phlebitis. If you’ve experienced it before, or if you are subject to venous insufficiency, or even if you generally have blood circulation problems, think about support stockings.
There’s no need to buy any special “diabetic socks” for that matter (they can turn out to be very expensive). Any regular tight high socks or stockings that fit snugly and support your lower leg would do its job and help your blood circulate well.
As for the shoes, well, the best advice we have is to take them off while on the plane.
Wear tight socks and comfortable clothing while on the plane!
HELP YOUR BLOOD CIRCULATION
Blood circulation problems on flights have 2 main causes: the pressure difference and the fact these tiny seats immobilize your legs in the same position for such a long time.
Most of the time, you can avoid leg swelling with a very simple thing: keep your legs moving! DO NO stay seated for the entire duration of a 10-hour flight— or for a 2 hour one. Move as often as you can! Try to stand up every hour to get a glass of water at the “bar” instead of asking the hostess to bring it to you (remember that you should drink more water than usual). And walk up and down the aisle a few times during the flight.
Get an aisle seat if possible. You’ll have more space to move your legs and can stand up as often as you like without annoying other passengers. And if you aren’t able to stand up or move for any reason, you can still increase/improve your blood circulation with this simple move: strongly push your feet against the floor for a few seconds each half hour.
FLYING WITH DIABETES:
For more tips and information about flying with diabetes, here’s a list of interesting articles, interviews, and travelers’ accounts that we found very useful:
- “Tackling Travel With Diabetes: Airport & Plane Food Secrets” Interview with Adam Brown by DIATRIBE
- American Diabetes Association’s fact sheets on Air Travel and Diabetes
- “My experience of flying with Diabetes” by Cazzy Magennis:
We hope this article has made things clearer for you. Traveling by plane with diabetes can be a hassle, but people do it every day without any problems. Diabetes should not stop you from doing anything at all.
Should you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment on this page or to contact us:
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