As a nurse I often hear people saying they can’t travel or take a gap year because they are living with a long term medical condition and have to take constant medications, which stops them from going anywhere. This simply isn’t true. Of course it will take extra planning and will have extra practicalities and logistics to sort out, but with many long term conditions independent world travel is still possible with a bit of planning.
Travelling with long term medical conditions has become a much more common complaint in recent years as the demographics of the typical backpacker and gap year taker has shifted. Now there are a lot more travellers in their middle ages and even their twilight years – those who are more likely to have long term conditions – picking up a backpack, and of course the traditional groups of students or young twenty something travellers aren’t immune to medical conditions either.
Wondering how to manage a daily routine, regular check ups or medication regimes can add a lot of unnecessary stress to planning for long term travel. It really is possible to do. Covering every single facet of the multitude of medical conditions and complaints is far beyond the remit of a single article, but what I can give you is qualified advice on the things you need to do or consider when you are planning to travel the world with existing medical conditions.
Make sure your insurance covers everything.
Okay, no one wants to hear this but insurance will generally be more expensive and restrictive dependent on the medical condition you will be travelling with. You will just have to bite the bullet! Make sure everything is declared and read the small print carefully, an hour or so of preparation before you go can save you a lot of hassle later.
See your GP, Specialist or Nurse at LEAST two months before you travel.
This one is important, do not leave things to the last minute! This goes for all aspects of health care before you travel and it is shocking how many people do this.
Have an initial appointment as early as possible to discuss things with your GP or whoever is overseeing your care. It may well be that you won’t need to see them again until just before you depart, if at all. However, dependent on the nature of your condition you may need to have multiple consultations or check ups before you leave, or organise with them to have extra equipment or follow up consultations abroad, and these things take time. The point is, you won’t know until you go and ask, and if you ask too late, you won’t have time to organise things.
At the very least seeing them as early as possible will give you time to take in and digest all the advice they will give you, give you time to go back to them if you have any questions you think of later and will also give you a lot more peace of mind.
Plan your route carefully.
You will have to venture pretty far off the beaten track to have to take extra measures in case of an emergency, but it is still wise – dependent on the nature of your condition – to plan to be able to get to a clinic or medical facility that will be able to deal with your individual condition if you need to be seen quickly.
Plan out your medication supply.
For anyone who is one a medication regime for their condition, this one is really important. You basically want to ensure that you have sufficient quantities of your medication to last you for your whole trip. I know this may seem a little obvious, and is not so much a consideration if you are heading away for a month or two, but if you are travelling long term you need to know that it is standard procedure in the UK for GPs to prescribe three months supply only for travel purposes and you will need to make alternative arrangements. Depending on the nature of your condition and the medication itself, a specialist or consultant may extend this and prescribe a longer course, or your GP may make an exception. This is something you will have to organise with them.
Getting medications abroad.
If you can’t get a prescription for the full length of your trip or the type of medication makes it impractical to carry so many for so long, then you can also obtain your prescriptions abroad. There are a number of issues with this.
First of all you will have to organise and plan your route to ensure that you are in a country with adequate medical facilities at a time when you will start to run low. There is no point in being in the middle of the Sahara or half way down the Amazon river when you are down to your last two or three days supply. Don’t worry, this is easier to do than you think. Many countries and cities around the world have world class health facilities where you will be able to do this, you just have to plan to be in them on time. For example if you are jumping around south east Asia, it is fine to go off the beaten track in Laos or Borneo for a couple of months, just make sure you are in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore for example at timely intervals so you can replenish your stock.
Along with this you will have to ensure that you are getting the right medication from the right supplier. Remember that many meds will have different brand names in different countries (even in this one it is impossible to keep up with the amount of names for one medication!) And your GP will be able to advise you on what medications will be available, what to look for and also supply you with a copy of your prescription so that you can hand that to the physician or pharmacist in your destination. It really should also go without saying that you should ensure that you only get meds from reputable clinics or pharmacies, not really a problem in larger, Western cities but the more off the grid you go the more planning you will have to do.
Medication restrictions abroad.
Depending on where you go, you may run into trouble bringing certain medications into or out of the country, as different countries have varying rules and restrictions on the type and amount of medication that can be brought in.
For every single country you want to visit, you will have to check with each individual embassy or high commission.
For certain prescription medications such as strong painkillers or controlled drugs, you will need to take a letter from your GP with you too to prevent any problems at customs. Your GP or specialist nurse will be able to tell you if you will need one. The same is true if you need to carry any needles, syringes or any similar equipment. If you travel for longer than three months with the same prescription you may also need to have a medications license from the Home Office.
Carrying medications on your travels.
All medications should be kept in their original packaging, no exceptions. Any controlled drugs should be carried in your hand luggage along with the letter from your GP and the Home Office. Certain meds such as insulin need to be kept at the correct temperature, so you will need to get some form of cool bag to carry them in. These can be obtained from most pharmacies in the UK.
If you are carrying liquid medications these are exempt from the normal 100 ml restrictions that airlines are still insisting on, provided of course you have that letter from your GP.
When you are in your destination it is also a good idea to divide your supply up and keep some in your day pack, a stash in your main pack or even give some to your travel companion if you have one. This will reduce the emergency levels if you happen to lose one.
Backpacking your way around the world long term or taking a full gap year will take more planning than is usually necessary for any given trip, and there are certainly a range of practicalities and logistical problems you will have to overcome if you do want to travel long term. However, it is important to remember that most of the time it is possible. Long term conditions and illnesses often have some impact on the quality of life of those who have them and depending on the nature of the condition some restrictions and limitations are required, but in many cases with the right planning travel does not have to be one of them.
The information provided here is for general travel health advice and information only. It is provided by a qualified nurse but is not a replacement for a personal consultation with a travel nurse specialist, your GP or a doctor specialising in travel medicine who can tailor advice to your individual medical history and needs.
Have you read all the information but still need a little more specific advice? Is there a travel health issue that you are worried about and need a little reassurance on? Need some information on malaria, or which vaccinations you will need? Is there a travel health issue you would like to ask about in complete confidence?
Well I am here to help.
Apart from being an experienced backpacker with over 10 years travel experience, I am also a qualified nurse with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine and practical experience volunteering as an expedition medic.
The Bemused Backpacker Travel Clinic is an indispensable online resource for you to gain a one on one consultation with a medical professional giving you personal reassurance, expert information and qualified advice for any and all of your travel health related questions. To head into the Travel Clinic, click here.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.