Traveling with an Ostomy | PART 2 | At the Airport & on a Plane (w/video)

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Now that you’ve planned and packed up for your trip, you’re all ready to get to your destination.  First, you’ll have to get through the airport and onto a plane.

In this article, I’ll be covering tips on how to make this stage in your travel plans go by smoothly.


Want to fly ahead or go back?


Video

https://youtu.be/NW0g17bSHNI

Before Leaving for the Airport

Appliance Change

I always change my appliance a few hours before heading to the airport if I’m going on a long haul flight since I’ll be a long way from the convenience of my hotel.

If you have a colostomy and can irrigate, I would suggest you do this the same day of your flight or the night before if you’ll be leaving early in the morning.

Irrigating your colon can make travel a lot more convenient, and will take some stress out of having to empty your pouch before reaching your destination.

Because I often don’t know how my stoma will react to the sudden changes in my routine, I will often put a gelling product into my pouch and a squirt of pouch deodorant before leaving for the airport.

Food/No food

I try not to eat on the day of my flight because I don’t want to have to empty my appliance too often before reaching my destination.

I honestly don’t recommend doing the same unless you’re comfortable doing so; there’s a risk of becoming weak when you don’t eat for prolonged periods of time, but I’m pretty used to doing this after years of illness speckled with intentional fasting.

As an alternative, some people will take Imodium to show down their bowel movements on the day of their flight. I don’t do this, although if you have a high-output stoma that’s difficult to manage this may be an option for you. If you’re considering this, please speak with your doctor to make sure it’s ok.

One thing you shouldn’t ignore is hydration, so make sure you’re “topped off” on fluids before heading out.

I tend to either make an oral rehydration solution or use a commercial electrolyte product that I can drink the morning of my flight day.

More tips on staying hydrated can be found HERE.

Do One Last Check

Before you head out the door, double-check that you’ve got all your supplies packed.  This includes making sure that you have a small emergency stash that you keep separate from your main luggage.

If you think it helps, keep a written list of the supplies you use including the manufacturer, part number, and size.  This will be useful if you need to order supplies at your destination (hopefully, you won’t have to!).

Alternatively, using an app like OstoBuddy will ensure that you’ve got all your relevant supply information at the ready.

At the Airport

Detroit Airport trippy tunnel
The McNamara Tunnel at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport is mind-blowing!

TIP: Look at a map of the airport before getting there. This will let you know where certain things (like the bathroom) are located, and it’ll make life a lot less stressful when you land.

Airport Security

Note: The following tips are based on my experience traveling with carry-on luggage only. Some things will be different (likely easier) if you travel with checked luggage instead.

Once you’ve checked in and have received a boarding pass, you’ll want to make your way towards airport security. As a matter of convenience, I usually check-in using the airline app or online once I get an email saying that I can (usually 24 hours before the flight).

I would highly recommend that you empty your ostomy appliance before reaching airport security, as having a full pouch will likely result in more questions/steps to go through.

I’ve been through several checkpoints in three different continents, and the process is similar throughout.

Here are some things you may need to do:

  • Have your personal belongings inspected.
  • Go through a body scanner.
  • Get a pat down.
  • Be tested for explosives residue.

Some airports that I’ve been to only required me to pass through the body scanner and have my items check, but I’ve been to a few where I’ve had to go through the full gamut.

When having your belongings checked, be sure to have any liquids in your carry-on out and ready to show the airport security personnel. Most (probably all) airports allow you to bring a maximum of 1000ml of liquids on the plane with you, and a maximum 100ml per individual container.

Liquids for carry on
Remember ALL liquids must be kept in a single 1L bag if you are traveling with carry on. In this photo, I have my 1L bag inside of a larger Ziploc bag in case anything leaks.

It’s often necessary to have all your liquid products in a single, clear bag for easy inspection. I keep this bag in an accessible part of my carry-on so I can remove it while waiting in line for my turn.

Some airlines will allow medical supplies to be counted separately from the 1000ml allowance, but I find that this isn’t always clear and you may need to call ahead to know exactly what your airline’s policy is.

Most airlines will recommend that you tell the inspector that you have a medical appliance before stepping into/through a body scanner. I usually do, but I’ve also not told them about the ostomy; they tend to see it on the scanner anyway, and they’ll pull me aside for further inspection.

One of my readers, who is a cancer survivor, asked whether there should be any concern over the radiation levels in airport scanners. The answer is “no”, you don’t have to be concerned. The level of radiation from an airport scanner is incredibly low (some suggest about as low as eating a banana). (SOURCE) (FANCY CHART)

If you are asked to be patted down, you have a right to ask that this be done in a private setting and by an officer of the same gender.  Depending on your level of comfort, you can also ask them to pat you down right there (which is what I do to save time).

I usually explain at this point (if I already haven’t before), that I wear a medical appliance.  Nearly all the inspectors that I’ve met know what an ostomy is, and know how to handle it sensitively.

If you feel more comfortable, considering keeping a special card with you that explains that you’d like an alternative screening method.

Part of the pat-down almost always involves being tested for explosive residue. This involves you touching the outside of your appliance (it has to be you), and then rubbing your hands on this special paper before it’s put into a machine (called the Explosives Detection System) which detects chemical residue.

That’s going to be the most difficult part of this entire process, and it really only takes a few extra minutes.  If you’re feeling stressed out or anxious about this process, remember that you aren’t being singled out because you’ve done something wrong, and this technology is important for keeping the public safe (plus, it’s pretty amazing tech!).

Once you’ve gone through security, you can make your way to your assigned gate and relax.

As a traveler tip, be sure to double-check that your gate number hasn’t changed; sometimes the gate on your boarding pass isn’t the same one you’ll be entering and the flight listing screens will give you the most up-to-date information about your flight status.

Depending on your airport, your gate’s waiting area may simply be a row of seats, or fully furnished with iPads, restaurants, and more!

Airport Bathrooms

All airports will have washrooms within a few minutes walk (at most) from each gate.  I try to find out where the nearest bathroom is before I get settled into a seat. 

I find those airport bathrooms tend to be fairly clean (at least compared to bathrooms in a mall), but my approach to emptying my bag is the same method I’d use with any public washroom.

While You Wait at Your Gate

If you’ll be waiting at your gate for some time, you may decide to eat something, too.  I avoid eating while in the airport as I don’t want my stoma to be too active before I’m on the plane, but I do  make sure that I’m drinking enough fluids.  You don’t have to starve yourself, so if you’re hungry, eat!

Most airlines will begin boarding passengers about a half-hour before the flight, but they may start calling certain passengers an hour before (usually to confirm some details with them). Try to stay close to your gate so you don’t miss anything; even if you’re in a nearby bathroom, you should still be able to hear the announcements over the p.a system. 

I tend to use the bathroom about 45 minutes before my flight so that I know that I won’t have to worry about emptying my bag again until after I’m on the plane. 

If All Goes Well, You’ll Be on Our Flight at This Time.

Seating

Hopefully, you’ve been able to select a seat ahead of time, but some airlines may not allow you to do that.

If you have the option to do this as you board (i.e. Southwest Airlines), I would highly suggest getting an aisle seat for flights that expected to be over four hours long.  This allows you to use the bathroom as many time as you like without having to step over other passengers.

For short flights, I prefer the window seats, although I’ve done long-haul flights in a window seat, too.

Window view between Amsterdam and Cape Town
Somewhere between Amsterdam and Cape Town – Window seats can be breathtaking.

You can refer back to PART 1 for more details on picking a seat.

Emergency Supplies

Always remember to keep emergency supplies with you at all times during your flight. Even if you’ve stowed away your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment, it may still be difficult to get access to it during your flight.

Since most airlines will allow for a “personal item” to be brought on board in addition to carry-on luggage, your emergency supplies can be kept in a purse, small backpack, or a similar sized bag.

Bear in mind that even if an airline does not allow for regular personal items to be kept with you at your seat (usually on tiny planes), you may still be allowed to have medical supplies with you.  Always ask, and always stress the importance of having those supplies close by.

Food/Snacks

Depending on your the length of your flight you may or may not be served meals and snacks.

Use caution when eating food or beverages that you know causes gas or high output from your stoma. This could include spicy foods, alcohol, coffee, and carbonated beverages.

Fortunately, many airlines do allow you some flexibility in the type of meals you’ll be getting.  I know that Delta/KLM has a great vegan menu, but you can also pick from several “medical diets’, too.

KLM vegan dinner Toronto to Amsterdam
Yes, please! My vegan dinner when flying from Toronto to Amsterdam.

You may also decide to order meals à la carte (separate from their set menu), although this is often at an extra cost.

While you’ll be given snacks (usually nuts) during long flights, you can bring your own snacks, too.  I prefer to stick to things like energy bars, as they travel well and can be filling.

If you’re interested in what I was eating while on an international flight with Delta/KLM, have a look at my trip to South Africa HERE.

Hydration

Separate from eating, you’ll want to make sure that you’re getting enough fluids to keep hydrated. Ileostomates will need to pay extra attention to this since dehydration is more of a concern when you don’t have a colon (or a colon that isn’t connected!) .

Airplane cabins are known to have a dehydrating effect because of their really low humidity levels (SOURCE), and the hustle and bustle of travel can compound the problem even more.

Don’t be afraid to ask your flight attendant for an extra bottle of water, and go easy on the alcohol (which will dehydrate you even more). In addition to beverages, I also make it a point to eat the fruit being served as another source of liquids.

Because dehydration tends to change how my stoma behaves, I look for signs like really thick output to tell me that I need to drink more!

You can find more tips on staying hydrated HERE, but remember that your options are limited while in the air.

Using the Bathroom

Bathrooms on airplanes (called “lavatories”) are tight and cramped. This could change how you empty your bag, so be prepared to modify your position.

While the lavatories may be small, you’ll have enough space for an appliance change.

For me, kneeling or squatting in front of the toilet bowl work best. But this is totally a matter of preference, and you’ll likely still be able to sit without any trouble.

One thing to be aware of is that these toilets aren’t filled with water, and they rely on vacuum suction and a tiny bit of water to clear out the content.

Because of this, I would strongly suggest covering the bottom of the bowl with toilet paper and aim for that when emptying your bag or risk leaving “skid marks” inside the bowl (which are NOT easy to flush away in an airplane toilet!).

If you use pouch liners, you’ll have the best luck throwing it in the toilet drain as you flush.

Alternatively, one of my readers had mentioned that he brings a small cup (even a small water bottle would work) with him to the lavatory and fills it up so that he can both rinse out his bag while emptying it and use it to help flush everything down the toilet.

TIP: If you are on a long-haul or overnight flight, try to time your bathroom trips to happen before busy times, like in the morning or before meals are served. Since people tend to line up to use the bathroom during those times, it’s better to get there early.

Pouch Ballooning

Many people may experience more gas in their pouch and an increase in abdominal bloating while flying; this is also observed in pilots so it’s not just you!

While it’s entirely possible that a change in cabin pressure may play a roll in this, I find that to be an exaggerated claim, and I can think of more likely sources of gas while flying:

  • Change of food.
  • Inactivity.
  • Irregular meal times.
  • Stress.

All of these factors can increase the chance of having gas, so do your best to be mindful of these so you can counter any problems they may cause you.

If possible, make sure that you’re wearing a fresh pouch with a working filter to help actively get rid of gas buildup.

If you do develop pouch ballooning, don’t be shy about excusing yourself to release that gas inside of the bathroom. Using a product like the Osto EZ-Vent may be useful in this situation.

Sleep

Insomnia is a problem for many travelers, but if you do get a chance to get some shuteye while on board your flight, I suggest emptying your appliance first.

If you normally find that you need to wake up throughout the night to empty your bag, I would also suggest setting up a silent alarm (vibration on your smartphone or watch) to remind you to wake up and check your ostomy bag.

Since your routine will likely be upside down, it’s better to rely on an alarm and not your internal clock to remind you (having a blowout while you sleep on a flight would not be good!).

You Have Arrived!

Once you finally reach your destination, you may want to empty your appliance once more before retrieving your luggage and heading to security

Head over to PART 3 for tips on managing your ostomy while on your trip.


BONUS: Layovers

A layover is when your flight makes one or more stops before reaching your final destination. Some people hate them, and others don’t mind them.

The length of time you’ll be waiting for your next flight could be 30 minutes or many hours later (less than 24 hours). Layovers differ from stopovers in that stopovers usually last over 24 hours on international flights.

If it’s a short layover, you may only have time to use the bathroom and maybe get something quick to eat.  But longer layovers allow you some time to explore and/or relax!

Feel free to grab a meal if you’ll be waiting for a while, and take this extra time to check your ostomy appliance for signs that it might need to be changed.

BONUS: Bathroom Tips for Continent Ostomies and Irrigation

If you have a continent ostomy or plan to irrigate your colostomy, I would suggest picking up a special travel kit that can be hung from inside a bathroom stall and opened up to give you a surface to work with.

Since you’ll need some extra hardware like catheters or water bottles to manage your ostomy, this style of kit will be invaluable.

Ostomy travel kit open
These aren’t the contents that I’d be taking with me on a flight, but this style travel bag opens up to create a working space in a bathroom stall.

As always, consider using the accessibility or family bathroom stalls as they’ll give you more space to work with and are cleaner (from my experience).  This will be especially useful if you need to do an appliance change or need to irrigate.

Marisa, a good friend of mine who blogs on the Journaling IBD website suggested keeping sealable bags handy if she doesn’t have the opportunity to clean her catheters immediately after use.

She also recommends bringing additional catheters along since there may not be an easy way to buy them at your destination.

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6 thoughts on “Traveling with an Ostomy | PART 2 | At the Airport & on a Plane (w/video)

  1. This does not address the fact I cannot get the washroom as stated in the first comment . I am paralysed and can’t leave the seat…..any help there?

  2. I’ve never had problems going through security at airports. I’ve flown from Canada to the US numerous times, to the UK, France, and to Japan. I’ve gone though body scanners, but I’ve never mentioned my ostomy or had security personnel ask about it (though I’ve assumed they can see it on the scanner – creepy!).

    I’m with you on using the washroom near your gate just before boarding starts (though I think that’s good practice for everyone). And I definitely second getting an aisle seat. No way do I want to be trapped by the window on a 13 hour flight to Japan. Give me access to the plane lavatory at all times, please. Other than that, though, I eat and drink as normal. It never even occurred to me not to lol. It’s always been fine. If I need to empty by bag a few times on the plane, so be it.

    To be honest, I don’t really do a lot differently when I travel. I just go about it normally like by day to day life.

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