Last summer I attended the 12th World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. This was my first trip overseas, and to say I was excited was definitely an understatement. I prepared in the usual way for a trip, buying some new clothes, getting film for my camera, arranging for someone to look after my pets, etc. But those of us living with HIV also have many other things to consider when traveling. Dealing with packing and storing our medicines, taking our pills on time when crossing time zones, being prepared for emergency medical care, and avoiding new infections might be new concerns we've never dealt with before. Fortunately I had been forewarned about these issues and was able to prepare. Also, I was going to a major AIDS conference and knew that there would be many AIDS specializing physicians there that I knew. Most of the time we travel, we don't have that type of peace of mind.
Now that it's approaching summer again, I thought this would be a good time to review some tips that can take some of the anxiety out of traveling, and help you to enjoy your time away.
- Pack your medicines in your carry-on. Do not check them with your luggage. This is not the time to take a chance on having your luggage lost or delayed. Pack enough to last your entire trip, plus extras in case you experience any delays in returning home. Depending on the length of your trip, you may want to carry them in something other than their original containers, which can be very bulky. Zip-Loc bags seem to be a popular choice. If any of your medicines come with a desiccant (a drying agent to remove moisture) in their original container, be sure to also include it in the new container. If you're traveling outside of your own country, or if you're carrying any medicines that might be controlled substances (some pain medications, for instance), you may want to keep those in their original containers with your prescription information attached.
- Take a list of your medicines with you including doses and schedules, and be sure to include your doctor's name and phone number. Be prepared to replace your medicines, just in case. You may want your doctor to give you extra copies of your prescriptions.
- If any of your medicines need to be kept at a certain temperature, be prepared for that. Taking a small insulated lunch bag or cooler, and putting in some of those artificial-ice freezer packs will keep your medicines requiring refrigeration chilled until you get to your destination; be sure to make arrangements for a refrigerator where you'll be staying if you do need one.
- If you are suffering from any condition where you think there may be a chance you'll need medical care while you're away, find out in advance what hospitals and medical services are available. If you have insurance, you should find out whether you'll be covered there, and what the proper procedures are. This is probably good advice for everyone.
- If you have to take your pills either with food or on an empty stomach, be prepared for that. If you're flying to your destination, realize that you may not have control as to when, what or even if they'll be serving food on the flight. You may want to pack snacks with you to take on the trip. Make sure to have with you whatever type of food you need to take your medications exactly as you're supposed to. This also includes water. Pack some bottled water to carry with you, especially if you're flying.
- Adjust your dosing schedule when you are crossing time zones. If the medications you are taking need to be taken at specific times, you'll need to adjust your schedule. The method many use is to take their medication either one hour earlier or one hour later than their scheduled dose, and continue this until you're on the new schedule. Carrying a second watch that remains at your home time may be helpful, too.
- If you're going to a sunny climate, pack plenty of sunscreen. Some of the antibiotics we take can make our skin more sensitive to sunburn.
- Always carry diarrhea medicine with you, even when traveling within your own country. Even minor changes in tap water may set off stomach problems for those of us with compromised immune systems.
- If you're unsure about the water supply, drink bottled carbonated beverages or distilled water. Remember this also applies to ice cubes.
- Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, raw or undercooked seafood or meat, unpasteurized milk and dairy products, and food and beverages purchased from street vendors. Ground meats can be especially risky. According to the CDC, foods and beverages that are generally safe include steaming hot foods, fruits that are peeled by the traveler, bottled (especially carbonated) beverages, hot coffee or tea, beer, wine or water brought to a rolling boil for one minute.
- To reduce the risk of cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis, avoid swimming in water that may be contaminated (e.g., with sewage or animal waste). This can include rivers, lakes, streams and even swimming pools if they are not properly chlorinated.
- Finally, don't wear yourself out! Whether this is a vacation, a business trip, or even just a few days back visiting your family, take it easy on yourself. Relax and enjoy your time away from home.