How to manage travel and epilepsy

No career or jet setting envy here.

Welcome to the world of health problems. My personal poison is epilepsy, but anyone with a long-term health condition knows its difficult ups and downs. To get to the point (and keep the self-pity on the brief side), it’s the knowledge that you aren’t as healthy as the rest of your friends. Missing a pill is the difference between a normal day at work and waking up on the floor with a throbbing head and someone asking if you’ve lost control of your bladder.

Just reading that, it almost seems like enough to put you off foreign travel, right? Note that I say almost. When it comes to travelling, it’s crucial to learn how to manage your illness: ignoring it won’t do you any good. Knowing about local and international healthcare services, as well as following the guidance below, will go a long way in helping you handle your travel plans and ensuring your own peace of mind.

before travelling

See your doctor before travelling

After all, he/she is the one with access to the magic pills that stop you from convulsing. Inform them of your plans and ask for an additional prescription so you can stock up. If possible, also ask them for a copy of your prescription and medication dosage. This will come in handy when…

At the airport

At the airport, make sure your medication is in a clear plastic bag and well-labelled. Don’t mix several types of medication into one box to save space. If asked what the medication is for, proudly display your prescription copy, then go through to duty-free and buy yourself a massive Toblerone (if you don’t deserve one, no one does).

Once abroad, pharmacies can be your first point of contact

That’s not the only advantage to having a copy of your prescription. If, due to bad luck, you run out of medication, don’t panic too much. Most European countries’ first point of contact for medical advice is their local pharmacy, so they’re generally well stocked and pharmacists working there know what they’re talking about (both in English and their own language).

First of all, go in and explain the situation whilst showing the prescription (just in case, it also helps if you learn how to say “I need…” in the country’s language before you leave). Pharmacists abroad are, more often than not, angels in disguise. They’ll more than likely understand the importance of your medication and supply you with it. Note that you may need to pay for it depending on the country you’re in. This happened to me in France and I had to pay around 30€ for Levetiracetum (sounds like a Harry Potter spell, doesn’t it?) – not the biggest cost when you take into account how much it helped.

europe travel illness travelling

If applicable, get your EHIC card

If you’re an EU citizen travelling around the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland (and haven’t done so already), apply for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). It gives you the right to access state-provided healthcare and will cover immediate and clinically necessary treatment (at a reduced cost or for free depending on the country) until you return home. The beauty of this free card is that is it also covers treatment for pre-existing medical conditions, so taking the time to fill it in is already worth you while.

Useful links

Frequent flyer with a particular airline?

Many airlines offer FREMECs (Frequent Traveller’s Medical Cards) to customers who travel regularly and may require special assistance, or medical clearance, for stable medical conditions or disabilities. Once a FREMEC card number is entered into your booking , this automatically sends messages to all relevant airline departments, identifying your personal needs.

As long as there have been no changes to your condition, you’ll no longer need to provide a physician or GP note before travelling. FREMECs also let you discreetly inform the airline of any needs or assistance you may need before, during and after the flight. To apply for one, visit the the airline’s website and search for the health and special assistance department.

preparing illness travelling

Specialist travel insurance

When I first asked about medical travel insurance to cover my condition abroad, the difference in price to my partner’s policy stung a little: it was more than triple the price. However, I decided to at least make some inquiries and see what that price would cover.

Gratefully, on the other side of the phone, I was quickly passed onto someone who specialised in epilepsy. The man in question took his time, asking me detailed questions about my condition (frequency, symptoms, effects, if there was any memory loss etc.) as well as the type of travel I was going to undertake. Thanks to his expertise, I ended up with a policy that didn’t only cover my travel plans, but also ensured safety and information about my condition if I was to need any medical attention abroad.

Useful link

I used InsuranceWith multi-trip travel insurance before travelling abroad. Check out their website or call for more information.

Download the MediSafe app

Of all the tips above, this one has been my biggest lifesaver – especially when first getting into the habit of taking different pills at regular intervals. Visual and extremely easy to use, this medication management app helps you set up reminders for pills and, if you don’t check in, will set off alarms at quarterly rates until you do. You can update it manually and can also set up a Med-Friend (family member or caretaker) who will be notified if you don’t check in and remind you only if needed.

Remember to update the alarms if you’re travelling somewhere in a different timezone. No one likes being woken up at 3AM to take four pills.

Set up a Medical ID on your phone

If you have an iPhone, the Medical ID option is in the Apple Health app. This will record information with your name, address, next of kin, condition and medication, which will then be available on your lock screen (underneath enter code along with the Emergency Calls option) in case anyone needs to access the information quickly. There are also apps you can buy for Android, but a free and easy alternative is setting the Medical ID information as your screensaver or standard lock screen message.

Order a Next on Kin card

And keep it in your wallet at all times! This will be the default place anyone will check for information if you’re indisposed. If you don’t have time to order one, you can also download one for free.

And, of course, always inform others

Knowledge is the key to your well-being and those around you. Although it can be pedantic to relate the same information whenever you travel with someone different, it will also let people assess the situation clearly if anything were to happen to you. You don’t need to tell everyone. A travel companion, tour guide or hotel staff manager you can confide in (or has enough authority) will be enough to ensure you’re well looked after.

Do you have any travel hacks for travelling with long-term illnesses? I’d really like to hear about them (and perhaps use some myself). Comment below or tweet me @sideroutes.

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