Get Out and See the World: 13 Strategies for Traveling with IBS

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is becoming more talked about these days, and rightly so, because many people suffer from various forms of it nowadays. An estimated 58 million people in the U.S. have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For those people, and the millions more worldwide, the idea of a vacation can be anything but relaxing.

Not having the safety of easy and quick access to a bathroom and being able to control one’s diet is a major concern for people struggling with IBS.Obviously, the idea of IBS alone is enough to make a lot of us cringe. IBS is a chronic condition that necessitates long-term management. Although the symptoms sound pretty intolerable, the condition doesn’t cause any permanent damage to internal organs. It mostly comes down to managing one’s diet correctly.

What is IBS?

discomfort in the abdominal areaIrritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a collection of symptoms that involve major discomfort in the abdominal area. These symptoms can include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic discovered that one in five adults has signs of IBS. While nobody knows exactly what causes IBS, there are some characteristics that are evident across most of the cases. The walls of the intestines either contract too much or not enough as they move food through your intestinal tract and to your rectum.

Strong contractions can lead to gas, bloating and diarrhea. If the contractions are weak, however, it can cause dry, hard stools.

Triggers of IBS: Prevention is the Key

The main triggers of IBS are diet, stress, hormones and other illnesses. Like with most diseases and disorders, the triggers of flare-ups are often within a person’s control, but some is not. While traveling it is sometimes not possible to control what we eat or drink, or where we go.

We recommend that you study the different aspects that are controllable to give yourself the most comfort and peace of mind possible. This means planning out exactly where you will go, and making sure to have maps or a GPS to find a restaurant or public rest room, if necessary.

Here are some common IBS triggers to be aware of when traveling:

Diet

The role of food allergies or intolerances in irritable bowel syndrome is not yet clearly understood, but many people have more severe symptoms when they eat certain things. A wide range of foods has been implicated including:

  • ChocolateChocolate
  • Spices
  • Fats
  • Fruits
  • Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Milk
  • Carbonated Beverages
  • Alcohol

Stress

Most people with IBS find that their signs and symptoms are worse or more frequent during periods of increased stress, such as when they travel to a new or unfamiliar place, for example. But while stress may aggravate symptoms, it doesn’t cause them, so planning is important to reduce your stress as much as possible.

Thankfully, smartphones with map apps and GPS tracking help a lot. You can also find local eateries, stores and even order a ride using them. Be sure to shop around for some helpful apps before you leave for your trip.

Most people underestimate the impact of stress on our health. The same is true for IBS. In fact, some experts go so far as to say that the leading cause of symptoms for IBS is stress. In fact, other factors usually follow. However, for someone who has their level of stress to a manageable level, even some other negative factors like eating the wrong kinds of foods, might not even have a negative effect in proper amounts.

Hormones

Because women are twice as likely to have IBS, researchers believe that hormonal changes play a role in this condition. Many women find that signs and symptoms are worse during or around their menstrual periods. Traveling while having a period is stressful enough, so adding IBS symptoms to the issue only compounds things more. If you can, try to plan trips around your menstrual cycle.

Common Illnesses

emergency roomSometimes an illness, such as an acute episode of infectious diarrhea, or gastroenteritis, or too many bacteria in the intestine like a bacterial overgrowth can trigger IBS. If it comes on suddenly and you also have pain or a fever, be sure to call your doctor or get to the emergency room.

Risk Factors

There are some definite risk factors associated with irritable bowel syndrome. IBS typically presents itself in women who are young, have a family history of IBS, and who may have a history of mental health issues.

The symptoms of IBS can also cause other medical conditions, such as hemorrhoids. Furthermore, if you are on a restrictive diet, you may be missing key nutrients that keep your body functioning properly. For some people, years of trying to manage this syndrome can lead to depression, as well.

Traveling With IBS: 13 Tips to Make the Trip a Breeze

If you have irritable bowel syndrome, then you know how daunting the thought of traveling by car, airplane, bus, ship or train can be. In a recent survey, 28 percent of the respondents who have IBS symptoms said they avoided travel in the past year due to their symptoms. This report comes from the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).

Despite their condition, IBS patients should not be deprived of travel due to their symptoms.

“If it’s something that you’re really looking forward to doing, by all means, do it,” says Nancy Norton, the IFFGD’s president and founder. “We talk to people with IBS all the time who have been apprehensive about traveling, but they go, and then they let us know they’ve had a wonderful time.”

leaving your schedule openWhen considering a trip or vacation, your mental state is about as important as your physical surroundings and itinerary. As stress has been implicated in IBS, try eliminating some of it by being less rigorous about your expectations.

Instead of trying to see every museum in Paris in one weekend, for example, consider leaving your schedule open to more flexibility. Perhaps you can have a list of places that you’d like to visit in a particular city or location, but without the need to visit them all. With this mindset, you can have the best of both worlds: flexibility and adventure.

According to Sheila Crowe, MD, gastroenterologist and spokeswoman for the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), “There’s definitely a benefit to taking a vacation, but people need to plan it, so that it’s not too stressful. Don’t feel like you have to see all the sights in the city. Maybe just enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and then only see two sights instead of four.”

There’s also an advantage that resisting over-planning can have during your travel exploits: more spontaneity. It’s well known that many people come back from their vacation more tired than when they left. Allowing spontaneity instead of following a rigid schedule of tourist visits can mean a more relaxed adventure. Having said that, it doesn’t mean you can’t be strategic, making sure that you’re always close to public restrooms and other safe places.

1. Practice Relaxation Techniques for Weeks Before Your Departure

You can practice visualization exercises where you even see yourself encountering some challenges, but being able to safely and effectively manage them. Deep breathing, meditation and visualization are powerful tools to help calm the mind and live in the present moment.

2. Visit Your Doctor Before a Major Trip

doctor

See if there are any medications that would help you, even if psychologically, to know that you have them if you need them. Just knowing that you have medication that can help you in an emergency can give you some freedom and peace of mind on your vacation.

Seeing a doctor or other medical professional will depend mostly on the severity of your symptoms. For people with mild symptoms, controlling some of the factors that we’ve discussed will be enough. However, for others with more serious symptoms, expert help can clear up some confusion that might be getting in your way to be able to have the lifestyle that you desire.

3. Avoid Travel Destinations Where Your Only Access is by Bus

Buses are a problem as you’re not in control of stops or even whether or not the bus has a functioning bathroom. For someone with IBS, these are big issues. You can take more control over your trip by planning your itinerary before you leave. It may take more time than for someone who doesn’t have IBS, but it will be well worth it when you’re on your trip having a blast.

4. One of the Best Travel Tips is To Rent a Car

A car gives you ultimate control over your situation. Obviously, things happen, and we can’t be prepared for everything. However, renting a car gives you flexibility to plan your day as you wish. That freedom may give you the ease you need and prevent the stress that might trigger IBS symptoms.

5. If You are Traveling by Air, Make Sure to Choose a Seat That is Close to a Bathroom

It’s also a good idea to pick an aisle seat, so that you don’t have to worry about a sleeping travel companion. This might cost you a few extra dollars on a few airlines, but it will definitely be worth it in your feeling of confidence and safety that you are in better control of your situation while flying.

6. Before Leaving on Your Trip, It’s a Great Idea to Check the CDC Website

Taking the right precautions is always a good idea when traveling, but it is especially important when you’re traveling with a syndrome like IBS. In fact, the more prepared you are, the better your trip will most likely be. This is why you need to check the CDC website.

travelingGet information about any diseases or other risks, as well as special vaccinations or immunizations that you may need for traveling to certain tourist destinations. Be sure to check the site well in advance of your journey to give yourself plenty of time to be prepared.

Out of all the tips on here for traveling with IBS, this may be the most important for your comfort. Unfortunately, taking an adventure to a location that is unsafe, whether because of health concerns or physical safety issues, is not advisable for people struggling with IBS.

However, an exception would be if you have people you know within the borders of the country you’re planning to visit who know the country well, including access to quality medical help and who understand your needs very well.

7. For a Long Trip, You May Consider Taking Some Medication Before Traveling

People with IBS who are concerned about diarrhea can take an antidiarrheal medication, such as Imodium or Lomotil, before they travel. It should be noted that some people can become overly constipated from these drugs, so talk to your doctor before taking them.

8. Ask Yourself Some Questions to be Best Prepared for an Enjoyable Trip

Asking the right questions can make all the difference. Having these questions written down somewhere accessible, so that you can refer back to them later on while at a future destination is a great idea. These questions will save you time and also give you greater satisfaction and ease:

  • Is there a late check-out option for the hotel? Is there an early check-in option?
  • Is there a refrigerator in the hotel, so that I can have more flexibility in planning my diet?
  • Is there a restaurant or room service at the hotel? What is on the menu?
  • Are there grocery stores and restaurants in the general vicinity? What’s within walking distance?

9. Have a Road Trip Emergency Plan

Let’s say you’re taking a drive through the country with another couple. There is no bathroom for miles, and you need to go immediately. Pull the car off the road somewhere with little traffic. Tell the rest of the group you want to check out something across the street, but that you have to look for something, and when you’re done, you’ll find them, and not the other way around. Life’s an adventure, right?

taking a driveOpen both the front passenger back and front doors and use them to hide yourself from view of oncoming and opposite traffic. Just pretend you are a kid again making a fort in your room. Instead of this time, instead of a fort, you are making a private bathroom. Next, squat down and do what you need to do.

Desperate times call for desperate actions. Just make sure to have some wet-wipes always in the glove compartment for just these kinds of emergencies. Even just knowing that you have this plan in your mind just in case something happens will probably have you feeling less stressed on your trip. Now, go enjoy yourself.

This next one is an air travel tip for you.

10. If You are Taking a Flight and Your Stomach Isn’t Cooperating, Don’t be Afraid to Talk to a Flight Attendant

In fact, it’s a good idea to have a conversation before takeoff. You can just let them know that you have a bowel disease and that you may need to use the bathroom at any given moment. Ask for their help, in case of long lines. If they don’t seem to get it, let them know that you have IBS, and that it is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This should get you a little more love.

Traveling internationally can be a challenge for those with IBS.

11. It’s a Good Idea to Know Some Key Phrases in the Foreign Language of the Country You are Visiting

Where is the nearest bathroom? Where is the hospital? I need a doctor. These are all phrases that you should have written down in your phone and on your person. For non-emergency situations, you’ll also want to be able to order off of restaurant menus and be able to say the items in the native language that you do not want in the dish.

12. If You are Traveling With Friends or a Tour Guide, Communicate About Your Condition and Any Needs You Have

traveling with friendsYou should talk to them before the tour or event in private about your condition, which they are probably familiar with and will appreciate. This can not only help you get your needs met more quickly, but it can also save you from having to explain why you might need to alter the entire group’s itinerary for 15 minutes while you’re attending to personal matters in the bathroom. This may also help others who have IBS and attend the tour after you.

Communication is always the key to any relationship. Most people are more than willing to help when they just know what’s going on. Try not to keep people, therefore, in the dark, but give them a sense of what you are dealing with, as well as what your unique needs might be. While this may cause some people to opt out of traveling with you as a partner, at least then you know you’ve done your due diligence, and the people who say yes really mean it.

13. Make Sure to Pack Those Specialty Items that You Might Need for Your Trip

Extra clothes, medications, special snacks and wet wipes are items that you will probably want to have close by. Also, if your condition is more serious, locate the nearest medical facilities beforehand and have that contact information written down somewhere that will be easy to access if necessary.

Remedies: Your Travel Helpers

If you regularly experience gas while flying, it is a good idea to bring some anti-flatulent medications on your trip. Gas-X is a popular choice. Other possible medications to alleviate and prevent symptoms are antacids, prescriptions anti-spasmodics and laxatives. Levbid and Bentyl are too common types of antispasmodics, while Lactulose and Miralax are popular laxatives.

chamomile teaFor an upset stomach, try chamomile tea. It has an anti-spasmodic effect for stomach cramps. To ease diarrhea, Sure-Jell and Certo are fruit pectins that can aid you by slowing the emptying of your gut. Oatmeal can have the same effect. Oatmeal and fruit pectins are easily transportable, as they come in small packets.

The most important thing to remember when living with IBS or IBD is to keep living. Travel, see your country, see other countries, but don’t let either illness keep you from doing what you want to do. All it takes is a bit of pre-planning, packing the right things, and being proactive about your condition, which you happen to share with many others.

There is no need to hide or be embarrassed, as long as you practice some of these IBS management tips. Ultimately, there are so many wonderful places to visit, that striking a few off your list shouldn’t cause you too much concern. Whether your next trip is hiking in Peru, snorkeling off of the coast of Mexico or snow skiing in Vancouver, B.C., we believe that these tips can give you the ability to make your next vacation your most enjoyable one yet

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