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Traveling by air? Here’s what you need to know.

January 7, 2013 in News

Traveling by air can be a hassle for anyone these days, and if you are living with diabetes, there are additional challenges – making sure you have enough of your medications, figuring out where to eat, keeping to your monitoring routine (help with those below the jump) – all on top of sometimes frustrating screening procedures.  For those who use an insulin pump or a glucose monitor, recent research has raised a very important question:

Do you know if it is safe to expose your pump or monitor to X-rays?

Many pump manufacturers, including Medtronic, Animas, and Tandem Diabetes Care, state specifically in their recommendations that their devices not be exposed to X-rays, either from full-body scanners or luggage screening machines at the airport.  Exactly what risk X-rays pose is still a little unclear, but most experts agree that some damage could occur, especially with repeated exposure over time.

Any pump or monitor using “direct current” motor technology can be interfered with by X-rays.  So far the only FDA-approved pump that doesn’t use this technology is Insulet’s OmniPod.

Metal detectors are different, and most pump manufacturers agree that it is okay to take your pump through them.

So, if you need to travel with a pump or continuous glucose monitor, what can you do?

First, check the information that came with your pump or monitor; if that’s not available, or clear, ask your doctor to help you determine what the manufacturer’s recommendations are for your devices.   If it is not safe to bring them through an X-ray,  you can remove the pump prior to passing through the screening, or you can request alternate screening procedures from TSA personnel.  Whatever you decide, you should notify staff that you have a pump or monitor before screening begins.  You can read the TSA’s full recommendations for those traveling with pumps on their website.

Second, be aware that you need to use extra caution while in flight.  When a plane is in flight, the air pressure in the cabin is high, which can cause insulin pumps to deliver slightly more insulin than normal.  The extra amount is not a concern for teens and adults – the amount of extra insulin isn’t enough to make a big difference in blood sugar levels. However, if you are traveling with young children who use small amounts of insulin, the extra can have a more significant impact, and they should be monitored carefully.  Air pressure can impact a continuous glucose monitor as well – the sensitivity of the readings could be affected.  There’s a lot more research that needs to be done on the subject, but the bottom line is that awareness and extra caution are needed.

Regardless of whether you use a pump or continuous glucose monitor, there are steps you can take before traveling to reduce potential hassles with airline travel.

First, and most important, get your doctor to write and sign a letter explaining your diagnosis that you can take with you whenever you travel by air.  This letter should state your diagnosis, your unique travel needs, and what supplies you have to travel with.

Second, bring your prescriptions with you.  When you ask for your travel letter, ask for copies of your prescriptions to show to TSA staff.

Third, familiarize yourself with the ADA’s Fact Sheet about air travel.  This will walk you through what items you can bring with you, how to interact with TSA staff, and explain your rights as they relate to security procedures.

The ADA has many additional resources regarding any kind of travel on their website, including information on requesting special meals, knowing what to pack, and dealing with time zone changes.

You can also obtain information directly from the TSA by contacting their TSA Cares Help Line; more information is available at the link, but keep in mind that if you need to contact anyone before you travel, you should make this contact at least 72 hours (3 days) in advance.

While these special concerns may seem intimidating, a little preparation in advance can help make sure your travel goes as smoothly as possible.  And remember, as a person dealing with diabetes, groups like the American Diabetes Association put a lot of effort into making sure that your rights and needs are protected.

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