It’s not easy to pack like a minimalist, especially when you want to stick to a carry-on, but unless you are looking forward to experiencing what medical care looks like in an unfamiliar country, you need to make some room in your luggage for the basics to stay healthy on the road. Many travel ailments can be solved with a few pills and a little knowledge about how to use them effectively. So, take out a few pairs of leggings and couple of bikinis and pack some over-the-counter medications instead — many of which can’t be found in several countries around the world.
Emily Scott is a Registered Nurse of eight years with a diploma in Tropical Nursing from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She works as a labor and delivery nurse in Washington state and travels abroad frequently for humanitarian medical service. Emily has treated patients in seven countries, including Ebola patients during the outbreak in West Africa. She also deployed to Nepal after the devastating earthquake. She loves to travel off the beaten path — always with her trusty first-aid kit at her side.
1. Antidiarrheal, like Immodium
Always have this one in with you because if you’re struck down by travelers’ diarrhea, you likely won’t be in a state to run to the local pharmacy. This issue is common for travelers to many countries but can be avoided by following this simple mantra when you eat and drink: boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it. If you do end up accidentally ingesting a local bacteria, remember that most travelers’ diarrhea will resolve itself with rest and lots of hydration. Antidiarrheals can help travelers feel secure enough to venture out into the world and manage the symptoms long enough to take a flight or public transport, but they do not treat the infection. Note that if you’re not improving or you cannot keep down fluids, it’s time to see a doctor.
2. Mild laxative, like Dulcolax
Travelers’ diarrhea is most tourists’ nightmare, but the opposite problem is also common. Travel disrupts your routines, changes your diet, and removes you from your comfort zone — all of which may lead to “vacation constipation” — yes, it’s a real thing. It can be prevented by staying active, eating plenty of fiber-rich foods, and drinking plenty of water. But if those methods fail after a few days and you’re uncomfortable, you can always turn to your medical kit. Remember to use laxatives sparingly, and contact your physician if the problem continues.
3. Mild pain reliever, like Tylenol or Motrin
You may end up sore in new and unique spots after dragging luggage around the airport, exploring a new city on foot, and sleeping in a bed that isn’t your own. Tylenol is generally better for headaches while Motrin is effective at reducing inflammation and swelling. So, if you twisted an ankle on cobblestone roads or woke up with menstrual cramps, reach for the Motrin. Be mindful not to take more than the dose recommended on the bottle as these meds can be rough on your liver and kidneys if used in excess.
4. Antibiotic ointment, like Neosporin
Unfortunately, we’re all just as clumsy on vacation as we are at home. Before you grab the ointment to treat a scraped knee or a finger cut, your first stop should be to wash it thoroughly with soap and water. Most minor cuts and scratches will heal just fine on their own, but antibiotic ointment can speed the process and prevent scarring. Just keep the cut covered if it’s in a place that can get dirty, and watch it for signs of infection (like redness, swelling, or fluid draining from the wound). And if it’s still bleeding after holding several minutes of firm pressure, you’ve outdone the powers of your first-aid kit and should see a doctor.
5. Antihistamine, like Benadryl or Claritin
You never know what environments or triggers you might encounter abroad, so it’s always good to have a dose of antihistamines on hand, especially if you’re prone to allergies. Fair warning: Some antihistamines, like Benadryl, will also make you drowsy, which isn’t ideal if you were hoping to spend the day sightseeing. If any allergic reaction continues to worsen or you have difficulty breathing, over-the-counter antihistamines won’t cut it, and it’s time to head to the hospital.
6. Sleep aid, like Melatonin
You may have reset your watch when you landed, but after flying all night and arriving on a new continent, your body has no idea what time zone you’re in. Fighting jet lag proactively is best: Expose yourself to sunlight at appropriate times, get plenty of exercise during the day, and avoid caffeine later in the day. But if you still find yourself wide awake way past bedtime, a sleep aid can help reorient your body clock. Melatonin is the supplement form of a hormone our bodies naturally make, and it’s not habit-forming, so you don’t have to worry about taking it a few nights in a row. It acts on the brain as a darkness signal, so take it half an hour before sleep and, hopefully, you’ll wake up in the right time zone.
7. Common-cold remedies, like Sudafed or Mucinex
There’s no way to treat the cold itself (it’s a virus, not a bacteria, so antibiotics are useless against it), but some over-the-counter medications can reduce the symptoms so you can still enjoy your trip. A decongestant nasal spray, cough suppressant, and/or expectorant can be helpful, depending on what specific symptoms you’re suffering from. As with all medications, use these for the shortest amount of time necessary, along with plenty of rest and hydration.
8. Motion-sickness medication, like Dramamine.
From planes to boats to anything used around the world for public transport, travelers often spend a lot of time being shaken about, so it’s necessary to have something that will prevent motion sickness. Be warned, though, that Dramamine will make you drowsy — so it’s your call if it’s worth going on a sailing trip that you might sleep through anyway.
9. Electrolyte tablets
It’s easy to get dehydrated when you travel. You may be distracted by all the fascinating sights while exploring your destination on foot or traveling in a country where clean water is hard to come by. If you suddenly notice you’re feeling lethargic, have dry mouth, or have a headache, you may be dehydrated. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your urine — if you’re using the bathroom less than normal and your urine is dark yellow, you’re not drinking enough. Drop an electrolyte tab in your water bottle and let it dissolve. Not only will it help replenish what you’ve lost, but if you find some with a flavor you enjoy, it may encourage you to drink more water throughout the day. (Electrolyte tablets also come in handy for travelers’ diarrhea when it’s important to keep up with the fluid and electrolyte loss.)
10. Hydrocortisone cream
If you’re a hiker or you’re traveling to a tropical country, hydrocortisone cream is a must. It can treat and reduce itching from insect bites, poison ivy, and a variety of rashes. It’s smart to research which insects you’re likely to encounter and how to avoid them, but have your hydrocortisone on hand just in case.
DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is for general travel health advice and information only. It is not a replacement for a personal consultation with your doctor or a travel medicine specialist. Check with your physician for drug interactions with your prescriptions before taking any over-the-counter medications.