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When thinking about traveling this year, certain factors may give you pause: for instance, general pain and stiffness that comes from traveling with autoimmune arthritis, plus the risk of COVID-19 that you’ve had to grapple with for the past three years (especially if you’re immunocompromised).
However, after years of canceling plans during the pandemic, you might be itching to see more of the world again — and we certainly don’t blame you.
Here, rheumatologists weigh in with their best tips on what to consider before booking your tickets.
Traveling With Pain
First, rest assured: Our experts largely agreed that there are ways to make travel with autoimmune arthritis possible, even if you experience chronic pain.
“If patients with rheumatoid arthritis enjoy traveling, they should be open to it,” says Brett Smith, DO, a rheumatologist at Tennessee Direct Rheumatology and East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. “While patients have a disease that alters their daily life, we also want them to enjoy life and not hold back.”
Prepare In Advance
The key for managing pain on your trip is planning in advance, bringing enough of the medications and supplies you’ll need, and keeping in contact with your doctor. The type of travel you’re embarking on will make a difference in how you manage aches along the way, too.
“If you’re driving for an hour, that’s different than if you’re taking a plane across the country,” says Lawrence Brent, MD, Professor of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and Associate Director of the Rheumatology Fellowship Program at Temple University Hospital. “Navigating airports can be very challenging for someone not only in terms of pain, but also mobility.”
Although they’re certainly not impossible to manage, Dr. Brent notes that airports are not always accommodating to those who have difficulty getting around.
“You can do it, but it’s going to take you much longer,” says Dr. Brent. “It all depends on how much you want to do the trip and what you think you can do — plus your pain tolerance, which is very individual. If you’re going with someone who can help, that makes a big difference.”
Keep Moving to Avoid Stiffness
During your trip, do your best to continue moving. You already know that with arthritis, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, stiffness is a common occurrence — and the longer you sit still, the more stiffness you’ll experience.
If you do choose to fly this summer, opt for an aisle seat so you have easier access to get up and walk around during your flight. (Get a head start before your trip with these 30 tips and tricks to prevent arthritis morning stiffness.) You may also find it helpful to bring a pillow to make hard airplane seats a little more comfortable.
It’s also worth considering the climate of the destination you’re headed to: “Warmer environments can be more beneficial for pain, stiffness, and function, so take that into consideration when choosing a destination,” says Dr. Smith.
Stock Up On and Pack Medications
Talk to your doctor about getting enough medication ahead of time, so you’re prepared if you experience a flare or are delayed during your travels.
“I usually offer patients with rheumatoid arthritis [or another type of inflammatory arthritis] a short course of steroids to take with them, just in case they have a flare,” says Dr. Smith.
Of course, you’ll also want to triple check your luggage before you leave to make sure you have everything you need to take your medication.
“Oral pills are easy, but if you’re taking a self-injection, make sure you have the appropriate packing materials and enough to last you through the trip — and maybe a couple of weeks extra,” says Nilanjana Bose, MD, MBA, a rheumatologist at Lonestar Rheumatology.
Create a Communication Plan With Your Doctor
Talk to your doctor about how you’ll stay in touch during your trip. Most physicians have online portals, so even if you’re traveling abroad, all you need is access to the internet to contact them.
Although there are many ways to safely and comfortably travel even if you experience chronic pain, there are a few times in which your doctor may recommend rescheduling the trip: “If you’ve had a recent respiratory illness or a recent flare of your disease, or you’ve had your medicines adjusted, you might consider changing your travel schedule,” says Dr. Brent.
Likewise, if you’ve just been diagnosed with a new underlying condition, you may want to pause to ensure you can adequately manage it before jetting off.
Traveling During COVID-19
If you’re immunocompromised, there’s no one easy answer to whether you should travel or not in the age of COVID-19. It’s a decision that needs to be made between you and your doctor, but here are a few things to consider:
- Are you up-to-date on your vaccines?
- Everyone aged 6 years and older should get 1 updated Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to be up to date, but those who are moderately or severely immunocompromised may get additional doses, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Do you have a respiratory condition (rheumatoid arthritis can affect the lungs) or other risk factors for developing issues with COVID-19?
- What medications are you on and how do they affect your immune system?
- For instance, rituximab is associated with an impaired response to SARS-CoV-2 vaccination in patients with rheumatic diseases, per an Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases report.
Follow Standard Mitigation Efforts
If you’re immunocompromised and decide to travel, follow all necessary precautions such as spending time outside rather than in indoor public spaces, wearing a mask or respirator (like the N95 mask), and keeping your distance from others, per the CDC.
“Carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer can also be an easy solution to lower the risk of infection while traveling,” says Dr. Smith.
These preventive measures are helpful not only for avoiding COVID-19, but other illnesses like cold and flu. And of course, the benefit of traveling during this time of year is that you don’t have to be in crowded indoor spaces quite as much.
“During the summer, you have the advantage of people being outside more, so you have more fresh air and you’re not cooped together like you are in the winter,” says Dr. Brent.
Get Up to Date on All Vaccines
In addition to your regular COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, plus those that protect against pneumonia and shingles, consider what other vaccines may protect you from disease during your trip.
“If you are traveling to an international location, update your vaccines according to public health guidelines and consult your rheumatologist about the potential need to hold any medications prior to or after vaccination,” says Dr. Smith. “Additionally, only eat and drink from reliable food and water sources while traveling.”
Research the Destination You’re Going To
Consider what viruses might be circulating in the community you’ll be visiting.
“If there is an endemic infection with an outbreak at the travel location, consider rescheduling the trip,” says Dr. Smith. “If you have an active infection close to travel time, also consider rescheduling your trip just to be cautious, since health care access will depend on the destination.”
And of course, if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness, speak to your doctor right away.
One last piece of advice from Dr. Smith: “Most importantly, try to enjoy life.” If that can include travel for you this summer, bon voyage. If not, still aim to enjoy little moments of adventure in your own community, whether it’s trying a new outdoor fitness class, visiting a park you’ve never been to before, or simply video chatting with a far-away friend.
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How to Protect Yourself and Others. COVID-19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 11, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.
Interview with Brett Smith, DO, a rheumatologist at Tennessee Direct Rheumatology and East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
Interview with Lawrence Brent, MD, Professor of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and Associate Director of the Rheumatology Fellowship Program at Temple University Hospital.
Interview with Nilanjana Bose, MD, MBA, a rheumatologist at Lonestar Rheumatology.
Stay Up to Date with COVID-19 Vaccines. COVID-19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 7, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/stay-up-to-date.html.