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Travelling with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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IBS is a digestive system disorder that can inconvenience those with it, especially when travelling.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome? 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common condition of the gastrointestinal tract affecting about 10 to 20 per cent of the population globally. It is typically characterized by recurring stomach discomfort and changes in bowel habits.

The exact cause of IBS is unclear but is thought to be a combination of both psychological (e.g., emotion, stress) and physiological (e.g., diet, hormones, drugs, abnormal intestinal movement, intestinal hypersensitivity, serious gastrointestinal infection/inflammation, genes, changes in gut microflora) factors. 

Presentations for IBS can vary but some of the more common clinical manifestations include: 

  • Abdominal discomfort (e.g., pain, cramps) 
  • Altered bowel habits (e.g., constipation, diarrhoea)
  • Abnormal stool passage (e.g., urgency, straining, frequency, feeling of incomplete bowel emptying)
  • Bloating

These symptoms tend to be recurrent but irregular. 

In general, diagnosis of IBS is based on patients’ clinical presentations and the exclusion of other diseases. 

There is no cure for IBS and treatment of IBS is mainly supportive, involving the following:

  • Lifestyle changes (e.g., getting regular exercise, sufficient sleep, minimising/coping with stress)
  • Dietary modifications (e.g. avoidance of food triggers, increased hydration and fibre consumption for constipation)
  • Medications and supplements to manage symptoms

How to Cope with Irritable Bowel Syndrome whilst Travelling?

IBS is often a long-standing disease, and its symptoms can be challenging to endure due to its unpredictable nature.

This uncertainty can be disruptive and anxiety-inducing, causing one to feel helpless especially if they need to be away from home. 

Below are some tips to help those suffering from IBS to better deal with the condition during travels. 

Be mindful of what you consume

  • Avoid food or drinks already known to provoke or worsen IBS symptoms. For instance, large meals, fatty/fried foods, caffeine, or alcohol can cause abdominal discomfort. One can also consider keeping a diary to better keep track of food triggers. 
  • Try not to experiment with new menus and stick to familiar items.

Allow for plenty of time during travels

  • Individuals should plan and attempt to allocate ample time for them to get to the airport and check in on the day of departure, as well as when moving between places. 
  • Good time management can help to alleviate the stress associated with travelling, a potential IBS trigger, and also leave time to use the washroom comfortably if needed. 

Plan ahead of travels

  • If taking a plane, opt for aisle seats close to the restrooms; find out where the lavatories are located. 
  • When travelling, particularly for long distances or to more remote locations, study the itinerary in advance and take note of rest areas or places with accessible public toilets. 
  • If feasible, make the trip by car, which can facilitate bathroom breaks. 
  • Keep some loose change at hand to pay for toilet entry if required.
  • When booking accommodation, avoid places where multiple rooms share a single restroom.
  • For travels to a foreign country with a different native language, learn how to ask for directions to the toilet.  

Be medically prepared 

  • Pack a medication list, and bring along sufficient supplies of essential medications to manage IBS symptoms as needed. 
  • Consider dividing medicines into separate containers (e.g., one to be carried along when out, another to be kept in the accommodation). 
  • Research on the destination’s necessary documents beforehand in case a top-up of medications overseas is required. 
  • Bring along your personal doctor’s contact information for ease of reaching the physician if needed.

Put together a “survival” kit

  • Select a bag/pouch to keep an extra change of clothes, tissues, medicines, and other essentials. It is to be carried along throughout the journey in the event of emergencies. 

Be flexible

  • At times, when IBS symptoms kick in, a change of plans might be unavoidable at the eleventh hour. Try to make backup plans.
  • Keep an open mind when needing to adjust schedules to minimise any distress that can precipitate IBS manifestations. 

To sum up, although IBS is rather unpredictable, the abovementioned tips can aid sufferers in coping with IBS. They do not need to be denied the pleasures of travelling with these measures that enable greater control of their condition.

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