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The Issues With Traveling Abroad When You Have an Autoimmune Disease

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Late last year, I booked a 16-day Contiki tour in Europe with my sister. Group travel is awesome because there are significant discounts when you travel in a group of 50. Plus, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to make amazing new friends while exploring the world. But, as I expected, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Leaving in early June, it was the start of the Australian winter and bitterly cold. Last year I had somehow managed to spend the colder months on immunosuppressants without once getting sick; this time I wasn’t so lucky.

I left with a barking cough and a runny nose, which was irritating but more than manageable. However, I didn’t know about the infamous “Contiki cough” that apparently always seems to make the rounds on these kinds of tours. For the average person, being pretty run down means getting a little sick, which isn’t all that big of a deal. But it is a little bit different for someone with an autoimmune disease like lupus.

It’s day 20 of being overseas, and every moment since we left home I’ve been sick in one form or another. The medication that keeps my body from destroying itself also leaves me susceptible to catching absolutely any kind of anything that’s floating through the air, but up until now I hadn’t had a proper crash course.

I didn’t know how badly my body would struggle to fight off simple strains of cold, but it’s probably to be expected when you’ve essentially taken away its first line of defense and live life without an immune system.

I guess part of me wanted to believe I could at least try to live this one month free of complications from lupus. But that was just blatant wishful thinking. Of course, I couldn’t. In times like these it becomes apparent just how prominent lupus will be throughout my life, and that I can never run from it. I’m never safe. I’m always one step away from falling back into another trap when I least expect it.

These moments of realization always hurt, as once again I’m hit with the reality that no matter how much I want to be, I’m not like everyone else, and never will be.

Travel is extremely taxing on the body, which automatically leaves lupus with the upper hand. Seeing the world means early mornings, long days and little time for rest, all of which are at least semi-incompatible with being chronically ill.

I tried to do everything right. I thought I could prepare myself for going overseas, and to an extent I did manage that from an active point of view. Unfortunately, you can’t train your body not to get sick, and no amount of running or going to the gym could compensate for not having an immune system.

I believed I had set myself up for success, packing duplicates of all my medications to ensure if the very worst happened I was ready. But what’s hurting me for the whole trip is not what I expected; it’s what I didn’t know to expect.

group sitting in front of the 'I amsterdam" sign

Once again I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, as I couldn’t bear to stop traveling. But to see the world means to let myself get run down and inevitably sick. There is no right answer, no easy fix to my predicament – only compromise. My only choice is to view my issue from both short- and long-term perspectives, weighing up the risks and rewards. Does the experience of traveling the world and making lifelong memories outweigh the hardship of catching sickness without an immune system?

Well, I can’t speak for myself in the future. But for now, even as I cough and wheeze and lay here missing a beautiful Italian day while on bedrest, after all I’ve seen and done, my answer can’t be anything but a resounding “Yes!”

This post originally appeared in Kristiana Page’s column “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” on Lupus News Today.

Originally published: August 31, 2017
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