Traveling with Refrigerated Medications
Last updated: May 2023
For many people, holiday plans include some kind of travel. In addition to the ordinary stress and chaos of travel, many of us with rheumatoid arthritis also need to figure out how to travel with medications that need to be refrigerated, like injectable biologic medications.
If you need to travel with refrigerated medications this holiday season, you should be sure to speak to your doctor or nurse for the best advice on transporting your medication.
How to keep RA biologics cold while traveling
But if you are still feeling nervous after that – never fear! I have traveled all over the United States and to China, Australia, and Spain with my Enbrel safely in tow! Based on my personal experiences, I’d like to offer some tips for traveling with medications that need to be refrigerated.
Secure a travel cooler
The first thing you will need is a little insulated travel cooler for keeping your medication cold while you are traveling. If you don’t already have one of these, see if your medication offers a support program that can send you one for free. Make sure the cooler is insulated enough to keep ice from melting for several hours.
In your travel cooler, you should pack as many doses of your medication as you will need for your trip, a frozen ice pack, and extra ziplock bags, which I’ll explain more about in a minute. You may also find it useful to include the box or container that your medication comes in with your name and prescription information so that you won’t have any trouble proving that the medication is prescribed to you should the need arise. This has never happened to me but I figure better safe than sorry! You can also pack a travel-sized sharps container separately, though I usually just keep used syringes in my travel cooler for proper disposal when I get home.
Can I fly and keep biologics cold?
If your travel plans include flying on an airplane, the most important thing to remember is that you need to carry your refrigerated medications onto the plane with you. The baggage compartment gets extremely cold while the plane is in flight and your medication may freeze and become ruined if you place it in your checked luggage.
Getting through TSA
When you go through security you should know that the official TSA policy allows you to bring medically necessary liquids, associated supplies such as syringes or auto-injectors, and ice packs to keep the liquids at the proper temperature. Passengers are requested to separate the medication container from their other belongings at the security checkpoint, though I have forgotten to do this on several occasions and it didn’t seem to be a problem.
Sometimes the medication container requires an additional screening, as ice packs appear pretty solid on the x-ray screen, so they often want to take a look inside the container. In all the traveling I have done with my Enbrel, I have never had trouble getting my medication through security. But if you are still concerned or have additional questions about getting through security, you can always call TSA Cares at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling.
Tips for long flights
For flights longer than a few hours, particularly international flights, your ice pack may not be sufficient to keep your medication cold for the entire flight. When this is the case I generally tell a flight attendant about my medication as soon as I board the plane. Usually the flight attendant is able to provide you with additional ice later in the flight – which is what those extra ziplock bags in your travel cooler are for!
Sometimes the flight attendant is even able to put the medication in the airplane’s refrigerator. If they are able to do that, make sure your container is labeled with your name and contact information. I usually attach my boarding pass as well so the flight attendant will remember where I am sitting. Above all, make sure you don’t leave your medication on the plane!
Using refrigerators while away from home
FRIDGES AWAY FROM HOME: If you are staying with family for the holidays, you should have no problem gaining access to a fridge to store your medication once you arrive. If you are staying in a hotel room, many have mini-fridges that you can use to keep your medication cold. It’s even ok to put your medication in a mini-bar fridge – you won’t be charged so long as you don’t touch anything else. With hotel room fridges, it is important to make sure the fridge is adjusted properly, cold enough but not too cold. You should also beware of fridges that turn off when you leave the room because in some countries it is standard practice to turn the power to a hotel room off when the room is not occupied. I saw this in China.
What if I don't have a fridge?
If there is no refrigerator in your hotel room, the fridge turns off when you leave, or you need to check out of your room but leave your luggage for the day, just let the front desk know that you have medication that needs to be refrigerated. They should be able to accommodate you. If you are traveling internationally and there is a language barrier, you may want to request to see the fridge so you can make sure your medication will be safe.
When all else fails, use ice!
It’s also completely possible to travel with refrigerated medication even if you won’t have access to a fridge on your trip. Just as perishable food can be kept fresh in an ice chest, you can use ice to preserve your medication.
The key is making sure you don’t run out of ice, so you need to check on your medication every few hours to see if you need additional ice. While this may seem like a lot of work, remember that you only need to do this until it’s time to take your dose, so you probably won’t have to worry about it for the whole trip.
Luckily, all kinds of businesses use ice – from coffee shops to gas stations to bars to hotels. In my experience, you can ask to have a small ziplock bag filled with ice almost anywhere. I always offer to pay for the ice, but most times employees will happily give you a cup of ice if you tell them you need it to keep your medication cold.
Remember that ice inevitably melts, so you may want to double-bag your ice or put your medication in a separate ziplock bag to prevent leaking.
I know all this may seem a bit overwhelming, but with a little advance planning and attentiveness, you can still travel the world even if you need to take medication that needs to be refrigerated. And knowing that your medication is properly taken care of is one less holiday stressor!
Did you know rheumatologist Dr. Donica Baker is answering community questions?
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