Travelers with Chronic Illnesses

General Travel Preparation: Practical Considerations

Although traveling abroad can be relaxing and rewarding, the physical demands of travel can be stressful, particularly for travelers with underlying chronic illnesses. With adequate preparation, however, such travelers can have safe and enjoyable trips. General recommendations for advising patients with chronic illnesses include:

  • Ensure that any chronic illnesses are well controlled. Patients with an underlying illness should see their health care providers to ensure that the management of their illness is optimized.
  • Encourage patients to seek pretravel consultation ≥4–6 weeks before departure to ensure adequate time to respond to immunizations and, in some circumstances, to try medications before travel (see the Immunocompromised Travelers section earlier in this chapter).
  • Advise patients to consider a destination where they have access to care for their condition.
  • Ask about previous health-related issues encountered during travel, such as complications during air travel.
  • Advise the traveler about packing a health kit (see Chapter 2, Travel Health Kits).
  • Advise travelers to pack medications and medical supplies (such as pouching for ostomies) in their original containers in carry-on luggage and to carry a copy of their prescriptions. Ensure the traveler has sufficient quantities of medications for the entire trip, plus extra in case of unexpected delays. Since medications should be taken based on elapsed time and not time of day, travelers may need guidance on scheduling when to take medications during and after crossing time zones.
  • Advise travelers to check with the US embassy or consulate to clarify medication restrictions in the destination country. Some countries do not allow visitors to bring certain medications into the country, especially narcotics and psychotropic medications.
  • Educate travelers regarding drug interactions (see Chapter 2, Interactions among Travel Vaccines & Drugs). Medications (such as warfarin) used to treat chronic medical illnesses may interact with medications prescribed for self-treatment of travelers’ diarrhea or malaria chemoprophylaxis. Discuss all medications used, either daily or on an as-needed basis.
  • Provide a clinician’s letter. The letter should be on office letterhead stationery and should outline existing medical conditions, medications prescribed (including generic names), and any equipment required to manage the condition.
  • Suggest supplemental insurance. Three types of insurance policies can be considered: 1) trip cancellation in the event of illness; 2) supplemental insurance so that money paid for health care abroad may be reimbursed, since most medical insurance policies do not cover health care in other countries; and 3) medical evacuation insurance (see Chapter 2, Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance). Travelers may need extra help in finding supplemental insurance, as some plans will not cover costs for preexisting conditions.
  • Encourage travelers with underlying medical conditions to consider choosing a medical assistance company that allows them to store their medical history so it can be accessed worldwide (see Chapter 2, Obtaining Health Care Abroad).
  • Help travelers devise a health plan. This plan should give instructions for managing minor problems or exacerbations of underlying illnesses and should include information about medical facilities available in the destination country (see Chapter 2, Obtaining Health Care Abroad).
  • Advise travelers to wear a medical alert bracelet or carry medical information on his or her person (various brands of jewelry or tags, even electronic, are available).
  • Advise travelers to stay hydrated, wear loose-fitting clothing, and walk and stretch at regular intervals during long-distance travel (see Chapter 2, Deep Vein Thrombosis & Pulmonary Embolism).
  • Consider advising the traveler to use a mobile application to track certain chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, while traveling.

Specific Chronic Illnesses

Issues related to specific chronic medical illnesses are addressed in Table 8-3. These recommendations should be used in conjunction with the other recommendations given throughout this book. Below is a noninclusive list of additional resources for information:

Table 8-3. Special considerations for travelers with chronic medical illnesses
ConditionAbsolute and Relative Contraindications to Airline TravelPreTravel ConsiderationsImmunization ConsiderationsMiscellaneous
  • Severe anemia
  • Cerebral edema due to intracranial tumor
  • ≤6 weeks since cranial surgery
  • Cardiovascular, pulmonary, or gastrointestinal complications referred to below
  • Emphasize food and water precautions
  • Plan for self-management of dehydration
  • DVT precautions
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing to prevent worsening of lymphedema
  • Immunosuppressive medications may alter response to immunizations
  • Live attenuated vaccines may be contraindicated
  • Revaccination may be necessary following cancer treatment
  • Check for medication restrictions in the destination country, especially if controlled medications are required for pain management
  • See the Immunocompromised Travelers section later in this chapter
Cardiovascular diseases
  • Following acute coronary syndrome:
  • those at very low risk and within 3 days after event
  • medium risk and within 10 days after event
  • high risk or awaiting further intervention or treatment—should defer air travel until disease is stable
  • Unstable angina
  • CHF, severe, decompensated
  • Uncontrolled hypertension
  • CABG within 14 days
  • CVA within 2 weeks
  • Elective percutaneous coronary intervention within 2 days
  • Uncontrolled arrhythmia
  • Eisenmenger syndrome
  • Severe symptomatic valvular heart disease
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Plan for self-management of dehydration and volume overload; may include adjusting medications
  • Bring copy of recent EKG
  • Bring pacemaker or AICD card
  • DVT precautions
  • Influenza
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hepatitis B
  • Have sublingual nitroglycerine available in carry-on bag
  • Mefloquine not recommended for people with cardiac conduction abnormalities, particularly for those with ventricular arrhythmias
  • Self-monitoring and management of INR should be tailored to the individual patient by the anticoagulant primary provider
Pulmonary diseases
  • Severe, labile asthma
  • Recent hospitalization for acute respiratory illness
  • Bullous lung disease
  • Active lower respiratory infection
  • Pneumothorax within 2–3 weeks
  • Pleural effusion within 14 days
  • High supplemental oxygen requirements at baseline
  • Major chest surgery within 10–14 days
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Discuss with airline need for other equipment on plane (such as nebulizer)
  • Plan for self-management of exacerbations (including COPD, asthma)
  • DVT precautions
  • Influenza
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hepatitis B
  • Consider carrying a short course of antibiotics and steroids for exacerbations
  • Consider advising an inhaler be available in carry-on bag, even if not routinely used
Gastrointestinal diseases
  • Surgery, including laparoscopic, within 10–14 days
  • Gastrointestinal bleed within 24 hours
  • Colonoscopy within 24 hours
  • Partial bowel obstruction
  • Liver failure (especially cirrhosis or heavy alcohol use)
  • Emphasize food and water precautions
  • Consider prescribing prophylactic antibiotic for TD
  • Recommend avoiding undercooked seafood, if cirrhosis or heavy alcohol use (Vibrio vulnificus )
  • Influenza
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • May experience increased colostomy output during air travel
  • H2 blockers and PPIs increase susceptibility to TD
  • Use mefloquine with caution in any chronic liver disease
  • For YF vaccine, see the Immunocompromised Travelers section later in this chapter
Renal failure and chronic renal insufficiencyNone
  • Emphasize food and water precautions
  • Plan for self-management of dehydration, which can worsen renal function
  • Arrange dialysis abroad, if needed
  • Adjust medications for CrCl
  • Influenza
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hepatitis B
  • Know HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B status
  • Atovaquone-proguanil contraindicated when CrCl <30 mL/min
  • AAKP and Global Dialysis websites can help with finding dialysis centers; check for accreditation
  • For YF vaccine, see the Immunocompromised Travelers section later in this chapter
Diabetes mellitusNone
  • Plan for self-management of dehydration, diabetic foot, and pressure sores
  • Insulin adjustments
  • Should check FSBG at 4- to 6-hour intervals during air travel
  • Discuss changes in insulin regimen or oral agent with diabetes specialist
  • Provide physician’s letter stating need for all equipment, including syringes, glucose meter, and supplies
  • Influenza
  • Pneumococcal
  • Hepatitis B
  • Keep insulin and all glucose meter supplies in carry-on bag
  • Bring food and supplies needed to manage hypoglycemia during travel
  • Check feet daily for pressure sores
  • For YF vaccine, see the Immunocompromised Travelers section later in this chapter
Severe allergic reactionsNone
  • Plan for managing allergic reactions while traveling and consider bringing a short course of steroids for possible allergic reactions
  • Should carry injectable epinephrine and antihistamines (H1 and H2 blockers)—always have on person

  • Many airlines already have policies in place for dealing with peanut allergies
  • Make sure to carry injectable epinephrine in case of a severe reaction while in flight
Autoimmune and rheumatologic diseasesNoneShould have a baseline TST or IGRA before starting TNF blockers
  • Immunosuppressive medications and TNF blockers may alter response to immunizations
  • Live attenuated vaccines may be contraindicated
Particular emphasis should be placed on food and water precautions and hand hygiene
Abbreviations: DVT, deep vein thrombosis; CHF, congestive heart failure; CABG, coronary artery bypass graft; CVA, cerebrovascular accident; EKG, electrocardiogram; AICD, automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillators; INR, international normalized ratio; COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; TD, travelers’ diarrhea; PPIs, proton-pump inhibitors; YF, yellow fever; CrCl, creatinine clearance; AAKP, American Association of Kidney Patients; FSBG, fingerstick blood glucose; TST, tuberculin skin test; IGRA, interferon-γ release assay; TNF, tumor necrosis factor.

Travelers may also want to investigate international health care accreditation agencies for centers that have been awarded recognition for high standards and good patient safety records. If travelers or their health care providers have concerns about fitness for air travel or the need to obtain a medical certificate before travel, the medical unit affiliated with the specific airline is a valuable source for information. Remember to notify the airline in advance if oxygen or other equipment is needed on the plane. The TSA Cares Helpline (toll-free at 855-787-2227) can also provide information on how to prepare for the airport security screening process with respect to a particular disability or medical condition.


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Deborah Nicolls Barbeau