Ugh. Airport security and diabetes. This is one of those topics I’ve been putting off writing about because it’s such a frustrating thing for so many people and experiences going through security are always so varied and inconsistent. But that’s what makes it important to talk about and share our experiences.
Going through airport security is already a stressful situation. Throw in an insulin pump and all of those diabetes supplies, and it can can be quite overwhelming. I’ve even had people tell me before that they never travel somewhere they have to fly with diabetes, only places they can drive because of the stress of this.
I am a big believer that you can do anything you want to, even with diabetes. And traveling and flying to new, wonderful or far away places is definitely something you can do! I can’t tell you that it won’t be stressful, but here’s all of my tips from my experiences to help ease your mind a little bit before your trip.
Give yourself extra time
This is always a good piece of advice for taking a flight, but especially with diabetes, for the airport security to safely screen you, it may require extra time and waiting. Your stress level will be much lower if you aren’t worried about missing your flight. I can tell you, I’ve waited 15-20 minutes for a female TSA officer to do a pat down because of my insulin pump, and it really seems like an eternity watching person after person walk on through while you wait. Just take a breath. It will be okay, this is what you allow the extra time for.
Inconsistency seems pretty consistent
I have experienced so many different things with TSA and airport security around the world. I think the TSA tries to make things streamlined, but sometimes I get up to the person and they don’t know what to do, or are telling me to do something different than the last person. Or sometimes they are completely understanding and it’s a breeze. Setting up the expectation in your head that it might be a pain can help you not be so surprised or frustrated if there are any issues.
At a presentation I led at a diabetes conference, someone told me about TSA Cares. I have yet to use it myself, but it sounds like such an amazing resource to ease your mind and prevent any frustrating situations. TSA Cares is a hotline you can call 72 hours before your flight and they can tell you what to expect and assign a passenger support specialist to meet you at the airport and help you through security. The person who told me about this used them when she was traveling with all of her diabetes supplies and breast milk for her infant daughter. She said it made a world of difference and she had such a good experience.
What you can and can’t do with your pump
X-rays are a no-go for most insulin pumps. I would highly recommend looking up travel recommendations for the insulin pump you use, because they all have their own recommendations. Omnipod, for example, can have all of it’s components go through x-ray screening. Most other insulin pump and CGMs, however, can be harmed by x-rays. Here’s some quick links to some of the most popular pumps:
What about those body scanners?
Most pump companies also recommend against putting your pump through the full body scanners. It’s a little bit controversial, and I have had several TSA officers tell me that they are fine for insulin pumps but stand your ground. Technically, the newer full body scanning machines would be fine since they use millimeter waves. However, some older machines are still in place and use low dose x-rays, and there is no way to know for sure.
Is anyone wondering about insulin? Is it okay to go through x-rays? The answer is yes. Insulin is a protein. X-rays do not denature proteins. If they did it would be really bad to use x-rays on a person since we are made of proteins. So don’t worry sending your insulin through the machine.
You have a right to a pat down. Legally, an airport security officer can not ask you to take off a medical device. According to the TSA Website, here’s what to expect during a pat down:
At any time during the screening process, you may request private screening and have a witness of your choice present. The screening is conducted by a TSA officer of the same gender. The officer will explain the pat-down process before and during the screening. Since pat-down screening is conducted to determine whether prohibited items are concealed under clothing, sufficient pressure must be applied in order to ensure detection. You should inform the officer if you have a medical condition or any areas that are painful when touched.
Don’t hide it
If you’re wearing a pump, never hide it from airport security. Always announce that you have a medical device so they can prepare for the proper screening. I always just take mine out and hold it in my hand and tell them I have an insulin pump/medical device. They will likely have you go through the metal detector (which is safe for insulin pumps), and then proceed to the pat down. You should also expect them to swab your pump for explosives. This is standard, and is something they have to do for electronic items they can’t x-ray.
One of the worst experiences I had was at the Phoenix airport when my insulin pump was swabbed for explosives and it came up positive in the machine! Those machines are really sensitive and that can happen sometimes. They have to run it on a different machine, or calibrate the machines if that happens. Turns out that excessive perfume or body spray can set them off, and we had just taken an Uber with a haze of Axe body spray to the airport. It ended up being okay in the end and only put us out by 30 minutes. But that’s one more reason why you shouldn’t douse yourself in Axe body spray. 🙂
I always carry a doctor’s note with me that describes the type of supplies I must carry and that my insulin pump can’t go through x-ray machines. I personally have never had to use it, but it’s a nice security blanket to know I have it. (haha, security blanket..) You can read everything my doctor’s note includes, along with things to pack in my post Packing Tips for Diabetics.
For low blood sugar, I recommend glucose tabs, gummies or fruit snacks. They are easy, fast and not liquid so you won’t have any issues. I have also used those apple sauce squeeze packs, because those are exactly 3 oz. I have heard that people have gone through security with juice boxes in a Ziplock labeled “Diabetes Low Blood Sugar Juice” and did not have any issues, but I have not personally tried it.
When we were in Kauai, I bought a jumbo pack of fruit snacks on sale at Costco. I probably had 40+ to take home and shoved them in a Ziplock bag. I knew that might look weird on the x-ray, so I kept it out separately. Four different security officers inspected it, seeming perplexed. Why a Ziplock bag full of fruit snacks? Because, diabetes.
The Medtronic website recommends that if you have issues with your diabetes supplies, to ask to speak to the TSA ground security commissioner. It’s never gotten to this point for me, and hopefully it never will for you, but it’s good to know who to ask for.
When we first started traveling out of the country, I was so nervous! I didn’t know what to expect and was afraid of language barriers and different protocols. I can tell you that I have actually had better experiences with international airport security than in the US. At one airport in Europe, I can’t remember which one, they were all so interested in my pump, so I was teaching the security officers about it and how it works. And the fine people of Iceland are some of the nicest people I’ve met!
At any airport, you should be treated with respect and dignity. If you ever feel like you aren’t, ask for a supervisor or report the situation.
As far as language barriers, I have always found that there is someone at every international airport that speaks English, and people understand when I say “diabetes” or “insulin pump” or “medical device.” Something that I do for my own piece of mind is translate a few key phrases like “insulin pump for diabetes” in Google translate into the primary language of the place we’re going. Again, I’ve never had to use that, but it could be helpful if anything were to happen.
I know this was a hefty post full of information. Congratulations if you made it to the end! And have so much fun on your trip. Just remember, allow extra time and take a breath. Everything will be okay and you’ll be on your way soon!
We all can benefit from the knowledge of other people’s experiences, so I would love to hear your airport security stories, good and bad, and any other tips I may have left out!