Life with MS

Screening Success: Navigating the TSA Checkpoint with MS

By MSF staff

Since its creation in 2001, the Transportation Security Administration has been responsible for security screenings in most U.S. airports, as well as setting the standards for private firms that carry out screenings for all other flights. The policies of this controversial and frequently criticized agency added a new level of complexity to air travel in the United States, particularly for those with medical conditions and disabilities. Moreover, several highly-publicized incidents between TSA and travelers with disabilities – particularly since the introduction of enhanced screening procedures in 2010 involving full-body scans or pat-downs – have made some hesitant about managing the security screening necessary for air travel. If this is a concern for you, knowing how to prepare, what to expect, and what rights you can assert can help you to navigate the screening process successfully.

Communicating Your Needs

While most travelers may pass through the TSA checkpoint without needing to speak to an officer, many of those with MS would need to communicate special circumstances. TSA provides a printable disability notification card on their website, which would allow you to discreetly inform a screener of your condition. Any medical documentation of your condition is acceptable for this purpose, or you can choose to discuss it openly.

Traveling with MS Medications

Air travelers are encouraged to keep their medications with them in carry-on baggage, in case those medications should be needed in-flight, or in the unfortunate event that your checked baggage is lost or misdirected. All medications in solid form (pills, capsules, or tablets) can be carried on with no special procedures – simply leave them in your carry-on as it is X-rayed at the security checkpoint. What if your medication is liquid, such as in the case of injectable MS treatments?

The TSA requires that you notify an agent in the screening area prior to beginning your screening if you have liquid medications, syringes, or ice packs. You would be asked to remove these items from your bag for a separate screening. (While most liquids must be less than three ounces and placed inside a zip-top plastic bag, liquid medications are exempt from this and should not be placed with your other liquid items, such as shampoo or mouthwash.) Ice or gel packs needed to keep medicine cooled must be completely frozen, or they may require additional screening, so keep them in the freezer until just before you leave for the airport if you can.

Generally, your medication and accompanying items would be X-rayed separately from your other belongings and returned to you to be repacked. In rare circumstances, TSA may opt to test some of the medication (or liquid in a melted ice pack) for explosives, or take further steps to clear them if the X-ray is unable to demonstrate that they contain no concealed items. It is advisable for all medications to be in their original containers with labels in place.

Screening with Mobility Issues

All travelers are required to have their person screened for concealed items, either by walking through a metal detector / standing in an imaging device (depending on the technology in place at the airport), or by undergoing a pat-down by a TSA officer of the same gender. This creates challenges for those with limited mobility or who rely on mobility or orthotic aids.

If you are able to walk and able to stand without support for 5-7 seconds with your arms above your head, you are eligible to use the imaging technology (though you can always choose to request a pat-down). If you cannot meet one or both of these requirements, you would undergo a pat-down.

Imaging Technology Screenings

If you use a mobility device, but are able to meet the requirements to use the imaging technology, your mobility device would be X-rayed or examined separately and returned to you after screening. Be certain you have sufficient strength to stand and wait should there be a delay. If not, request a chair or consider opting for the pat-down.

Notify the screener if you are using a brace, orthotic, or other wearable medical device. You may be asked to lift your pant leg to display something such as a leg brace for further inspection, or may volunteer to remove it for X-ray, but for less conveniently placed devices, a private screening should be offered. You are not required to expose any sensitive areas of your body.

If you have an implanted medical device (for example, a Baclofen pump), be prepared to provide medical documentation should it show up on the imaging.

Pat-down Screenings

Any traveler can request their screening be conducted in a private area. A witness is provided for private screenings. You may also request that a companion, family member, or caregiver be with you (whether your screening is public or private).

All mobility aids are subject to examination. Aids for standing or walking are typically X-rayed while you are seated comfortably in a waiting area.

Persons in wheelchairs or scooters who are unable to walk and stand will be patted down while seated in their device. Their wheelchair/scooter will be visually inspected and patted down, including the seat cushions and any nonremovable pockets or pouches, and may be swabbed for residue of explosives. Any removable bags will be X-rayed.

Know Your Rights

Should you have questions about the screening process or your specific circumstances, TSA provides a helpline for those with medical conditions and disabilities, TSA Cares. (Find the number and hours in the Resources section below.) It is recommended that you call 72 hours in advance of your flight for the most current guidelines. If you have special circumstances, you can request in advance that a passenger support specialist be available during your screening.

Other Points to Remember:

Accommodations are made so travelers with disabilities do not have to wait in security lines. If you are not immediately directed to a screening area for people with disabilities, ask an officer where to go.

You may have a companion, caregiver, or family member with you during the entirety of your screening. However, that person will need to be screened once they are done assisting you.

Anyone has the right to opt out of the use of imaging technology and request a pat-down instead. Even if an officer perceives you as capable of the necessary walking and standing to be screened in this way, no one should pressure you.

You may request reasonable accommodations (such as a chair) at any time during the process.
If at any time during the screening an issue arises, you can request a supervisor or a passenger support specialist for on-site assistance.

Should you encounter a problem or think you have been treated unfairly because of your medical condition or disability, you can file a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, the government agency that oversees TSA.

With advance knowledge and preparation, and a little patience, you can navigate security screenings successfully and make it to your gate on time!


TSA Cares
Weekdays: 8 a.m. - 11 p.m. ET
Weekends/Holidays: 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. ET
Information for travelers with special needs:
How to file a complaint: