What You Need to Know If You're Flying with Multiple Sclerosis

Use these tips to make air travel less stressful

Woman waiting in airport departure hall
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Between the stress of arriving on time, the long stretches in your seat, and the lack of legroom, flights can be exhausting for totally healthy people. Throw the fatigue, pain, and mobility challenges of multiple sclerosis (MS) into the mix and the discomforts of air travel are magnified. But that doesn't mean you should avoid getting on a plane—especially since you, of all people, deserve a little time away from the stress of everyday life.

 

Traveling with Multiple Sclerosis

I travel a great deal internationally, which involves lots of long flights of 10 or more hours. Initially, I dreaded these flights because of my MS, feeling cramped for space and panicky before the plane even left the runway. I would watch the flight tracker with dismay, and the hours seemed to move much more slowly than usual. I won't lie to you; since I usually fly economy, it can be difficult to find my "happy place" in these situations. 

However, I have recently come to peace with these long flights. I try to look at them as opportunities to rest and be calm, rather than periods of imprisonment. I tell myself that the hours are going pass much more quickly if I try to find the positive aspects of my situation. And most importantly, I have a number of strategies to help me prepare and make these trips more comfortable, and even bring moments of pleasantness to my journey.

 

It is possible to travel safely and comfortably with MS—and the key is preparation. Here are my top MS-friendly travel trips for an easier flight. 

Pack Your Medications Correctly 

Perhaps the most important part of air travel with MS is having your medications properly packed. Many medications need to be kept cold, especially those that are given by injection, but some may be kept at room temperature temporarily.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist for clear instructions on how to store or pack any injectables or other medications for travel. You may also call the patient care line of your drug's manufacturer for this information, where you can ask to speak to a nurse.

If required, pack your medications with an ice pack or in a mini cooler. You may also need to call your destination ahead of time to ask for a mini-refrigerator in your hotel room. Don't forget to pack any other supplies you'll need to administer your medication, such as alcohol swabs, gauze pads, band-aids, and a sharps container to dispose of needles or syringes. Lastly, always pack your medications in your carry-on bag, as checked bags run the risk of getting lost or left behind. Having your meds close to you during your flight will also help lower your anxiety. 

Arrive At The Airport Extra Early

Everyone says this, and I was always the person who preferred to cut it close. However, the stress of "close calls" and actually missing a couple of flights made me realize that an extra hour or two in the airport is a small price to pay for smooth travels.

Both stress and overexertion can cause a symptom flare, and running through the airport terminal like your head is on fire uses up your energy reserves and puts you at risk of falling ill. Arrive an hour and a half to two hours before your scheduled flight. For international flights, I arrive three hours before my flight, promising myself a treat once I get past security.

Let People Help You

Don't assume that just because you're maxed out energy-wise, others are feeling the same. I have asked many people to hold something while I rearrange my stuff, help me place my bags in the overhead compartment, or figure out where my gate is—and all of them seemed happy to help. Sure, I could have done all of these things myself, but when I am fatigued or in pain, these small contributions from others help me conserve necessary energy.

Never hesitate to ask for wheelchair assistance or a ride on a cart if you have mobility problems or feel that it will be challenging to walk the long distances to and from the gate. Call the airport ahead of time to ask about their accessibility services; many customer care representatives are available throughout airport terminals to assist passengers with check-in, ground transportation, and other travel needs. Never be embarrassed to ask for this kind of help.

Ask for More Space 

I have a little secret: on flights that are not full, there are often several empty rows. I have found that, simply by asking when you check in—and explaining your condition—you can have a whole row to yourself. This will allow you to raise up the armrests and have three seats on which to lie down. These seats tend to be towards the back of the aircraft, but that also means that they are closer to the bathroom—always a plus. 

Travel as Light as Possible 

In the past, I would check my large suitcase, then haul a large tote bag onto the plane with all of the things I might want to use during the flight. However, I recently got a small four-wheeled suitcase and a small bag that slips over the top of the handle; this is now my carry on item and I don't check any luggage. In fact, I don't even carry a purse now. It's almost effortless to push this suitcase along, and I even find myself using it for support when I am extra tired. This helps me avoid added stress and fatigue while traveling. 

Stay Hydrated and Use Hand Sanitizer  

These common sense tips can be easy to forget on travel days. Firstly, being well-hydrated is thought to lessen the effect of jet lag, an unpleasant side effect of switching time zones that may cause fatigue, irritability, trouble concentrating, upset stomach, and headaches. We who have MS certainly don't need any of that! So drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your flight. 

I also find that this helps with the constipation that I sometimes get while traveling (I also take a stool softener when I travel). Trust me, even if you have bladder dysfunction of some kind, the inconvenience of needing to use the restroom frequently is outweighed by the benefits of being well-hydrated on a long flight. And to help prevent infections, always carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently. Air cabins are hot beds for germs, and those of us on immune-modifying drugs need to take extra precaution. 

Read More About Traveling with MS

Traveling Alone with Multiple Sclerosis

International Travel with Multiple Sclerosis: Translate Your Needs

Medication and Travel – How to Travel with Medications

Can Airline Travel Cause a Relapse?

Sources: 

Barbara Giesser, MD. A Doctor's Travel Tips. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

Ways to Minimize Jet Lag. The Family Health Guide, Harvard Health Publications. 2008. 

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