Traveling With IBS: What to Pack
Travel can be very disruptive for people with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Whether you’re planning a business trip to another city, or a fun family getaway to the beach, travel always involves a little anxiety.
What if my flight’s delayed and I miss the connection? Will there be any good restaurants within walking distance of my hotel?
But if you have irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D), travel can be so disruptive to your health that you may find yourself nixing the getaway altogether and choosing a staycation instead.
With some careful planning, we assure you that you can still enjoy the getaway of your dreams.
IBS-D is an oversensitivity of the nerves and muscles in the intestines that, besides diarrhea, can cause cramps, gassiness, bloating, and constipation. For those with it, every aspect of travel can cause trouble.
Much of this anxiety about traveling stems from all the ‘what ifs’ and the feeling of being trapped and unable to easily get home to the comfort zone of your own bathroom.
Disrupting Your Routine
For several reasons, traveling outside of one’s comfort zone can be very disruptive for people with IBS. First, the stress associated with catching your flight and getting to the hotel can worsen your symptoms. But also, being away from your usual place of eating and going to the bathroom can disrupt the bowels. Bowels don’t like surprises!
And not only are you introducing new foods, but you might be eating at unusual times, staying out late, and eating later than usual.
You may actually find that your digestion is better on holiday, away from the daily stresses of work and always being on the go. Some people feel better when they take a break from daily life.
For most people, the run-up to a holiday can feel incredibly draining. Finishing up that project at work and remembering everything you need to pack can leave us all feeling exhausted. And extra tense!
If you’re one of those people for whom travel adds some additional challenges,
Gastroenterology of Greater Orlando has tips to help.
Taming Your Symptoms
Here are some smart ways to tame your symptoms when you travel:
- Plan your flight or your driving route wisely. When booking your flight, choose a row close to the restroom — and make sure you have an aisle seat, so you don’t have to disturb a snoozing neighbor every time you get up to use it. Build in extra time to arrive at the airport early enough to use the bathroom before you board. If you’re driving a long distance, use the Internet to map out where all the rest areas are along your route.
- Don’t leave yourself at the mercy of the snack machines. Pick a hotel that offers a mini fridge in the room. Before you book it, see if there is a grocery store nearby so you can pick up foods that don’t trigger your symptoms. Websites such as Chowhound, OpenTable, and Yelp can show you all your dining options before you arrive.
- Eat regular, small meals. People with IBS-D are sometimes tempted to skip meals when they’re traveling. It’s better for you to eat small, healthy meals. Avoid fatty food and fast food, which can trigger symptoms.
- Pack an emergency bag to keep with you. Consider packing a small carry-on bag full of non-perishable, high-fiber snacks like granola bars and medicine like Imodium. You may also want to throw in an extra change of underwear and some toilet tissue or wipes. Even if you don’t need it, just knowing it’s there can lower your stress.
- Don’t forget to drink up. Keep a bottle of water with you to stay hydrated. There’s no evidence that avoiding beverages will keep you from having loose stools; if you become dehydrated, that can lead to other problems. And you should stick to water since carbonation and artificial sweeteners can aggravate your symptoms.
- Keep breakfast consistent. Since your bowels don’t love surprises, starting the day the same way you always do at home can be helpful. If you have yogurt every morning at home, then see if you can keep some in your mini-fridge and continue to have that for breakfast on vacation. Your gut will appreciate it.
- Take a break to relax. Research has shown that relaxation techniques can help calm your IBS-D by lowering the body’s stress response. Hypnosis using progressive relaxation and picturing soothing imagery was one of the most effective relaxation strategies.
- Bring any medication or supplements that help you during a flare-up, so you’re prepared in case you feel an IBS attack coming on.
- Map out bathroom access. There are now many helpful bathroom-finding apps for your mobile device. Knowing where bathrooms can be found ahead of time can help keep your anxiety level down. This is especially pertinent when traveling abroad.
Foreign Languages/Traveling Abroad
Foreign travel can be some of the most rewarding experiences of your life. With proper preparation, you can enjoy it. Just get prepared to communicate what you need. If you’re traveling somewhere the language is different, learn a few words to help explain what you need. Can’t eat strawberries? Make sure you know the word for strawberries in the local language, and use Google translate to get a complete phrase you can show them on your smartphone or write it down.
Key things you might want to say include phrases like:
- “Where are the toilets?”
- “I can’t eat XYZ.”
- “Does this food have XYZ in it?”
The last thing you want to do is to complicate your already challenging health situation by exposing yourself to an unwanted infection, commonly known as travelers’ diarrhea. Especially if traveling abroad, protect yourself by doing the following:
- Drink (and brush your teeth) with only bottled or boiled water.
- Avoid street vendors or other unhygienic food sources.
- Avoid raw or undercooked vegetables and fruits.
- Avoid raw or undercooked meats and seafood.
- Avoid ice in your beverages, as ice may also contain contaminated water.
- Carry hand sanitizer of at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands before eating.
And because some countries use pay toilets, always be sure to carry extra change with you.
Confide in Your Companions
Don’t let your pride cause you problems. Dealing with IBS is hard enough. Don’t make it worse for yourself by trying to hide your distress from your traveling companions. Whether traveling domestically or abroad, if you will need special accommodations, speak up! You have a legitimate medical disorder, and so you have a right to make sure that you will be as comfortable as possible.
Remember, most people have a genuine desire to be helpful. IBS is very common, so you might be surprised to find out that someone else is dealing with the very same thing. You can simply say, “I have a digestive disorder that sometimes causes me to get sick when I travel. So, I need to be careful about what I eat, and I may need to spend some extra time in the bathroom.” Good people will want you to have a good time.
Despite the rigors, travel is filled with many life-enhancing and enjoyable benefits. The rewards can be tremendous! And while IBS can be an isolating disorder, taking steps to get out into the world despite discomfort can be extremely empowering. See each excursion as a success regardless of how you felt or what symptoms you experienced. And use those experiences to improve your plan for your next trip.
Before your trip, consult us about travel preparation and possible prescription options for treating severe symptoms. You may not need them, but knowing they are available can significantly contribute to peace of mind.
Our practice began more than 15 years ago and has emerged as one of the leading gastroenterology practices in central Florida. We perform a host of diagnostic procedures using state-of-the-art equipment in a friendly, comfortable, and inviting atmosphere where patient care is always a top priority. Contact us today!