Summer is when many people take spur-of-the-moment vacations with little more packed in their bags than what I carry in my purse on an average day. They don’t have to stock up on snacks in advance when there are tons of fast-food restaurants along the highway, or an airline snack pack to buy. They also generally have more time between finding out they have to go to the bathroom and actually needing to pull over and find one (or needing to climb over a snoring airplane passenger).
But that doesn’t mean those of us who have IBD can’t have a fun and relaxing time on a summer vacation; it just means it’s a little more annoying and time-consuming to plan. But that’s nothing new for us. We’re a resourceful lot. We can do this.
Wherever you go and however you decide to get there, there are some basic supplies to pack that’ll help any IBDer get through one of the more stressful parts of vacation: getting there.
Note: This list is focused on domestic travel, not international travel. International travel usually involves much more planning, more supplies, and pre-consults with doctors. For more info (but not medical advice) on international travel, see CDC’s Travelers Health website.
Your survival kit
A small, sturdy, water-resistant bag: Get a thick canvas or plastic bag, maybe with a wrist strap or handle so it doesn’t have to touch gross countertops or the floor (cosmetics storage bags could work well). This will bag will be your bathroom survival kit; many of the below supplies will go inside it.
CCFA “I Can’t Wait” card, which tells people you need to jump to the front of any bathroom line due to your medical condition. I’ve used it a half-dozen times and no one’s ever pushed back; in fact, I usually don't have to even show the card. I just say I have a medical condition, and then no one has ever failed to step aside or hurriedly unlock an employees-only bathroom. All CCFA members get sent the card, or you could make your own if you have good graphic design skills.
Seat covers (or seat sanitizer), toilet paper and bath wipes: Don’t count on restrooms having them, not even toilet paper. Plus, you may not always be near a restroom. All of these paper products come in little pocket packs, but little packs of facial tissue might be easier to find and should work pretty well.
Hand sanitizer: For restrooms where there’s no soap, or a gross door you had to pull the handle of to exit, or when there’s no restroom at all.
Air freshener spray and/or matches: At a public restroom, who cares if you stink it up. But if your destination is a relative’s house with one bathroom for 8 people, it might start to matter. But, of course, don’t use matches on an airplane.
Extra underwear: You hope you never have to use the extra pair in your carry-on but, like the pepper spray on your keychain, it’s comforting to know it’s in there just in case.
Medications: Not just your everyday prescription meds, but also any just-in-case over-the-counter or prescription drugs that you have your doctor’s blessing to take for pain, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, or nausea. Make sure to put these in your carry-on bag; you can’t afford to wait for the airline to find these if they get lost. Some biologic meds will need to be kept on ice; you may also need a doctor’s note or prescription stating you must be allowed to carry this medication. You likely also want to keep all your medications in their original bottles, or else you could be held up by screeners and questioned as to whether these meds are really yours and whether they are what you say they are …
Your doctor’s contact info and your health insurance card: If you have one of those doctors who’ll give you her personal cell number, that’s awesome. (I have a friend who texts photos of skin rashes to her doctor, to convince him to get her an urgent appointment.) If not, look up urgent-care clinics at your destination ahead of time, and maybe download a telemedicine smartphone app or two (I don’t vouch for any in particular, but I’ve heard of Maven, Heal, and Dr on Demand. Some health insurance companies and concierge medical practices offer their own versions, too.)
Snacks, meals and water: Even on airplanes, you can pack at least a few small snacks from home that you know are gut-safe. And as much water as you can; air travel is dehydrating, raising the risk for both constipation and blood clots, and you’ll only get “fun-sized” water bottles occasionally out of the flight attendants. Air travelers will have to wait to buy bottled water till they’re at the airport. For road trips, bring a list (paper or on your phone) of the fast-food restaurant menu items that you looked up the ingredients of in advance and might be relatively safe for you to eat (if any).
Optional for traveling by car: Trash bags, a toilet seat and a bucket, to make a portable “toilet.” There are special kits for this you can buy online (including seats that mount to a truck bumper, bucketless), or I suppose you could just fasten a standard toilet seat to any old bucket. (Disclaimer: I haven’t ever done this myself, but I’ve always meant to.) If you have a van or SUV (and tinted windows), you might even be able to do this inside your car with the windows cracked (while any passengers wait outside). In this case, those matches and air freshener are mandatory. IBD passengers, do NOT climb to the back of the vehicle to use the bathroom while the driver is flying down the highway. You could get seriously injured or killed, or end up with excrement all over yourself and the car — a fate not much better than death.
I’m sure I left some important supplies out; what supplies do you consider mandatory for domestic vacations with IBD? In a future column, I’ll share specific, hard-won tips for taking cars, trains, planes, RVs or cruise ships for domestic trips.
Author and illustrator Katie McLendon was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005 and worked as a CCFA support group facilitator in Atlanta for nine years. Katie is a Certified Health Education Specialist with a Master of Public Health degree from Emory University who works as a public health professional in Atlanta.