IBS: 5 Tips to Control Symptoms When You Travel

You don’t have to limit travel with proper planning
woman suffering with IBS

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), travel can present some not-so-fun challenges. The cramping, bloating and other icky symptoms of IBS can make travel by plane or vehicle anxiety-ridden and stressful. Go by plane and you’re subject to the lack of privacy and micro-quarters of an airplane lavatory. Go by car and you’re subject to the uncertainty and questionable cleanliness of the next rest stop. Change from your routine, potentially different time zones and eating unfamiliar foods can create the perfect storm to worsen IBS symptoms.

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As many begin to plan travel and adventures after a long coronavirus-induced quarantine, being prepared for traveling with IBS can cut your risk of a flare-up, says gastroenterologist Brian Kirsh, MD. He offers the following tips to help minimize your symptoms.

1. Know your unique symptoms

IBS affects the large intestine and symptoms of IBS vary from person to person. Generally, the unifying feature is abdominal pain, but you may also experience:

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

“It’s important to understand your specific 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 travel in the middle of a flare-up.

2. Prepare for a possible exacerbation on the road

With the added stress of travel, it’s good to prepare for a flare-up during your excursion so you can “go” when you’re on the go. Keep these tips in mind:

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  • If diarrhea is a possibility, have Imodium® or Lomotil® on hand.
  • Pack laxatives if constipation is a factor in your IBS.
  • Download an app for your smartphone or tablet that helps locate bathrooms around the world, including free ones like SitOrSquat® (the app designates clean bathrooms as “sit” and less-clean ones as “squat”) or Flush Toilet Finder, which lists more than 70,000 public restrooms. USA Rest Stops® is also a great tool for locating upcoming rest areas if you’re traveling by car. 

3. Consider simple ways to relax

Because anxiety and stress are often strong triggers for IBS, simply keeping on top of things and allowing extra time for packing can alleviate some of its 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.”

So plan ahead. Make a packing list before your trip to ensure you’ve packed everything you’ll need. Begin packing and making arrangements for travel, such as boarding pets, a day earlier than necessary to give yourself extra time for your departure. 

Use simple stress reduction techniques to help calm your nerves before you embark. Try one or more of these:

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  • 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, consider packing snacks and foods that you know you tolerate well to keep handy for your journey. Here are some other tips:

  • Be assertive when you eat out. If gluten or lactose is a problem for you, ask every time if they are in your meal. Many restaurants now offer gluten-free and lactose-free menu items. 
  • Avoid caffeine. This can worsen symptoms.
  • Limit dairy. Consume milk and other products with lactose sparingly.
  • Amp up fiber. Be sure to get ample fiber in your diet to help pass stools.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink three or four glasses of water daily.

5. Choose a friendly destination, if possible

Though not many are traveling overseas yet due to coronavirus, if you’re able to choose where you go, be mindful of your destination and its potential pitfalls.

For example, you may want to avoid any country where food and water are problematic. “Getting a stomach infection can cause IBS flare-ups,” Dr. Kirsh says.

Also, don’t set yourself up for trouble by planning trips where you’ll have to walk for long periods of time with limited access to a bathroom or travel frequently by train.

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