IBS: 5 Tips to Control Symptoms When You Travel

What to consider and how to plan
IBS: 5 Tips to Control Symptoms When You Travel

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), travel can present some not-so-fun challenges. Go by plane, and you may not be able to easily leave your seat. Go by car, and you may be at the mercy of the next rest stop. Travel stress and eating unfamiliar foods also can conspire to worsen IBS symptoms.

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But these aren’t reasons to keep from living your life, whether you are vacationing, visiting friends or traveling for work. Being prepared can cut your risk of sickness, says gastroenterologist Brian Kirsh, MD. He offers the following tips to help minimize your symptoms:

1. Know your unique symptoms

Symptoms of IBS vary from person to person. Though the unifying feature is abdominal pain, you may also experience:

  • Cramping in the lower abdomen
  • Excessive gas
  • Hard bowel movements or constipation
  • Loose bowels or diarrhea

It’s important to understand your condition and know how and when IBS affects you, Dr. Kirsh says. It’s also a good idea to get a handle on your condition before you travel. No one wants to leave town in the middle of a flare-up.

2. Prepare for a possible flare-up on the road

In a perfect world, you will be symptom-free, but, of course, that’s not always how things go. Keep these tips in mind:

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  • If diarrhea is a possibility, have Imodium® or Lomotil® on hand.
  • Pack laxatives if you could suffer from constipation.
  • Get an app for your smartphone or tablet that helps locate bathrooms around the world, including free ones like Sit or Squat (the app designates clean bathrooms as “sit” and less-clean ones as “squat”) or Toilet Finder, which lists more than 70,000 public restrooms.

3. Consider simple ways to relax

When you’re prepared, that helps alleviate some of your worry. And, as you likely know, stress, in and of itself, can often exacerbate symptoms.

“Any stress can throw off your gastrointestinal tract. There is definitely a brain-gut connection,” Dr. Kirsh says. “The gastrointestinal tract is more connected to the brain than any other organ system.”

Learning and using some simple stress reduction techniques can help. Try one or more of these:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Relaxing imagery
  • Listening to your favorite music
  • Exercise

4. Mind what you eat

For some people with IBS, food doesn’t cause problems. But if you are sensitive to certain foods, keep in mind that you’ll have less control of your food intake when you travel. Plan ahead and prepare to speak up when you need to.

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Here are some other tips:

  • Pack snacks. Having something healthy at hand when you get hungry helps you avoid desperation eating.
  • Be assertive when you eat out. If gluten or lactose is a problem for you, ask every time if they are in your meal. Or if you decide you want that bowl of ice cream, just know you may suffer the consequences later.
  • Avoid caffeine. This can worsen symptoms.
  • Limit dairy. Consume milk and other products with lactose sparingly.
  • Amp up fiber. Be sure you are getting ample fiber in your diet to bulk up stools.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink three or four glasses of water daily. 

5. Choose a friendly destination, if possible

Finally, if you are able to choose where you go, be mindful of your destination and its potential pitfalls.

For example, you may want to avoid Mexico or a third-world country where food and water are problematic. Getting a stomach infection can cause IBS flare-ups, Dr. Kirsh says. Try not to set yourself up for trouble by planning trips where you’ll have to walk for long periods of time or travel frequently by train.

You don’t have to stay home to manage your IBS. Think and plan ahead, and you can confidently open yourself up to a world of travel opportunities.

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