Tips for Travel with IBD

It’s not something I talk about very often but I suffer from a bowel condition known as Ulcerative Colitis (UC).

If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s a disease where the colon becomes inflamed with ulcers.

This may surprise some people as we’re frequent travellers. I don’t let my bowel condition affect me and so travel with IBD is now the norm for us.

What is IBD?

Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease together make up the two main forms of conditions known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

In the UK alone it’s estimated to affect more than 300,000 people. Its symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, passing blood and fatigue.

The majority of people take a range of medications to treat their IBD. However, in its most severe form surgery is the last resort.

My Story with IBD

When I was a 20 year old University student my life was turned upside down after quickly becoming ill with UC.

I had been suffering from diarrhoea for a short time and started having severe abdominal pain.

After a mere few months with symptoms I needed major emergency surgery to remove my colon and give me a temporary stoma.

This is where a part of your small bowel is pulled out onto your abdomen to which a bag is attached to collect waste.

Whilst I no longer had to deal with a diseased colon, the stoma came with its own set of problems.

Issues like sore skin, bag leaks and pain were not uncommon for me. As a young woman still at University I also found it hard to deal with the psychological aspects that having a stoma brings.

It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about openly and hid it from everyone apart from my closest friends and family. It completely knocked my confidence and self-esteem.

Travel with IBD

My first trip after having surgery was 4 months later on a family holiday to Orlando. I was nervous about travelling through airport security but also how my bag would cope in the Floridian heat. There was little to worry about though. My family were brilliant and going on that trip so early into my recovery gave me the confidence to travel more. This was despite my bowel condition as I officially caught the ‘travel bug’.

18 months later I had my stoma reversed and now have what’s known as a j-pouch (or ileoanal pouch).

Travelling with IBD can be tricky at times and requires some prior preparations.

Such as planning activities during the times of day when I’m most awake as I can suffer from lethargy and fatigue. Or needing to go to the toilet more often than usual and needing to know where the nearest restrooms are.

Yet in spite of the above, over the years I’ve travelled to countless destinations including South East Asia where sanitation can be poor.

Since I’ve travelled extensively whilst having surgery for UC I’ve figured out some tips along the way. Here are my tips for travel with IBD.

Accessible Toilets

Is this your idea of an accessible toilet?

When you have a bowel condition you can sometimes obsess over toilets (I’m sure a lot of my IBD friends will attest to this!)

This can range from planning where the nearest restrooms are to ensuring you’ve always got an aisle seat.

If you need an aisle seat the majority of airlines offer seat selection. This is sometimes at an extra cost but it’s definitely worth it for peace of mind.

Contact your airline in advance to ensure you get the seat you want.

Most attractions and tourist destinations will have public bathrooms unless you are hiking out in the bush.

Some restroom facilities are better than others though so keeping tissues or wet wipes handy is always useful.

The last thing you need is to get caught out when there’s no tissues left (trust me I’ve been there and it wasn’t exactly pretty!)

You can get restroom request cards which explain to businesses that you need urgent restroom facilities.

They’re not guaranteed to work although I’m sure most businesses would let you use their toilets if you desperately needed to.

It’s definitely worth planning ahead when it comes to bathroom facilities when travelling with IBD.

Accomodation

If you’re staying in an Airbnb, tent or other accommodation where you’ll be sharing bathroom facilities that may pose an issue.

Most Airbnbs I’ve stayed in have had the bathroom just down the hallway though.

Camp sites will have a restroom block, make sure you’re prepared if you have to go in the middle of the night.

A head torch may be a wise investment for those night time toilet breaks!

Contact the accomodation ahead of time to inform them of your bowel condition. You may be able to request a room closer to the bathroom.

If the thought of staying in shared bathroom dorm rooms scares you, an ensuite room is the way to go.

It’s what we do when it comes to travel with IBD!

Flying with IBD

The change in air pressure can especially affects those with bowel conditions.

You may get colicky type pains from flying so have pain killers on hand just in case.

Always carry your usual medication in your cabin baggage and set reminder timers so you don’t miss any doses.

Avoiding fizzy drinks before and during the flight is always useful. Try to eat foods that you know won’t give you an upset stomach.

White carbs (potato, bread and rice) and protein foods are good to have. If you need a special plane meal then make sure to order one in advance.

It will vary from airline to airline on what special meals are available. But usually gluten free, vegetarian and vegan, low fat, low sugar and lactose free are offered as standard.

As I eat a low fibre diet I avoid most plane meals and will bring plenty of snacks to eat instead.

Most planes only have a small number of toilets so you might want to select a seat that’s nearby, or an aisle seat for easy access.

Again, contact the airline ahead of time and inform them of your condition. You may be able to get a seat selection for free (although not guaranteed).

Food and Drink

Depending on your travel destination you’ll want to follow some food and drink safety precautions.

Traveller’s diarrhoea isn’t fun for anyone and certainly not someone who is already at risk of dehydration.

Ensure you drink plenty of water at all times. To keep dehydration at bay you can carry some rehydration sachets too.

If you follow basis food and drink hygiene then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be okay.

Drink bottled or filtered water, avoid drinks with ice cubes and watch out for salads washed in regular water.

Follow your gut. If a restaurant or food stall looks dodgy then chances are it is.

The last thing you need on your trip is to get sick. When we visited Thailand last year we ate a dodgy food stall where we both got sick afterwards. The flight home 2 days later wasn’t pleasant!

But thankfully due to the preparations I’d made my time sick wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s just another thing to deal with when it comes to travel with IBD.

Emergency Travel Kit for IBD

Before going on any trip I keep a folder of medical documentation I need whilst away.

This includes a letter from my Surgeon, travel insurance documentation and a travel certificate.

The travel certificate is a fold out leaflet explaining my surgery written in eight different languages.

In the UK these can be obtained through IA (the national charity for those with an ileostomy or ileoanal pouch). It’s useful if I ever have to explain my condition abroad where I don’t know the language.

I’ll also have with me any medications, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, a change of underwear and rehydration sachets.

These all go into my cabin luggage. If you have a stoma then your regular supplies would also need to go into your carry-on.

In my hold luggage, I always carry a first aid kit which includes plasters, bandages, syringes, sterile needles, and an IV cannula.

It’s never happened before but if you ever need emergency medical treatment in a hospital abroad it can be handed to a medical professional.

This is essential in remote areas and developing countries with poor sanitation.

Conclusion

Above all, make sure you’re fit to travel and are not currently in a flare. It is much better to travel when you’re stable and not end up in a foreign hospital.

You’ll always have a much better experience for it.

I can’t stress enough how important travel insurance with IBD is. It’s worth the cost in any case of an emergency. Make sure to get it well in advance as it covers you for cancellations too.

What do you think of our tips on travel with IBD? Do you do things differently when travelling with IBD? We’d love you to let us know your comments in the section below.

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