Eliot C. Heher, MD
If you travel internationally (or if you travel in the US and like to be well prepared), I would seriously consider packing some first-aid items or even an entire kit. Pharmacies generally aren’t as convenient overseas as they are in the U.S. (for example, 24 hour pharmacies are much harder to find) and medications you’re accustomed to using may go by different names or may not be available at all.
The list below of items to consider bringing is fairly comprehensive. It may be more than you need for travel to Europe–but less than you need for travel to the developing world. What you bring should depend on where you’re going (research your destination!), how long you’re staying, what you plan to do (explore in the jungle? scuba dive?), who you’re traveling with (kids, or elderly parents?) and your own medical situation (do you take medications? are you pregnant?).
There are many commercially available first aid kits designed for travelers and these are a good place to start. They tend to be good on the basics like bandages but weaker on medications. If you do purchase a kit, look for one that has extra space to add items–or plan to remove some of the items they include to make room for extras. The best kits are easily opened, lightweight, and waterproof, with clear vinyl pockets so you can see in without removing everything.
Keep in mind that the medical conditions you have at home (headaches, urinary tract infections, hypertension, heart disease, prostate enlargement, whatever) are more likely to trouble you abroad than exotic diseases. So personalize your first aid kit with medications you currently use and have used in the past. Ask all the physicians you see regularly (generalist and specialist) which medications you should carry with you. And carry the medications you take regularly in your carry on!
First Aid Kit Check List
Bring a good First-Aid book and read it–or take a First-Aid class before you go. The kit will do you no good if you don’t know what to do with the items.
Bring a doctor’s summary of your medical history, and a typed list of the medications you use, including the generic names. If you have angina, or a history of a heart attack, or heart disease of any kind, bring a copy of your EKG.
- Tweezers/Forceps for splinters, tick removal etc.
- Cloth sling (bandannas can be used for this).
- Safety pins (to hold a sling, among other uses).
- Splints (various sizes available–take whichever fit).
- Ace Bandages/other elastic wraps.
- Sterile Saline–for flushing wounds and injuries.
- Sterile, Disposable Rubber Gloves–to protect the person performing first aid.
- Thermometer to detect fever (range 96 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on where you’re going, consider bringing one that’s useful for low body temperatures (thermometer range 86 to 100 degrees). Thermometers should have Celsius scale as well so local healthcare providers can understand your readings.
- Insect repellant for skin, containing DEET
- Permethrin–insect repellant for clothing.
- Sunscreen–SPF 30 or above
- Lip Balm with sunscreen
- Sunglasses & Hat
- Extra prescription eyeglasses and/or contact lenses.
Bandages and Other Supplies for Cuts & Lacerations
- Butterfly Bandages–for wound closure.
- Gauze (4×4’s, 3×3’s etc.–look in your pharmacy).
- Non-Stick Wound Dressings.
- Adhesive Tape
- Adhesive Bandages and Regular “Band-Aids”
- Quality EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) scissors for removing clothing etc.
- Betadine or Iodine (swabs or liquid) for cleaning/sterilizing dirty wounds.
- Alcohol wipes
- Moleskin (read the directions!)
- Eyepads (to cover a wounded eye).
Over-The-Counter Medications/Agents (follow all instructions!)
- Neosporin or other anti-bacterial ointment
- Dramamine or Dramamine II/Bonine–for motion sickness
- Benadryl–for treatment of allergic reactions
- Ibuprofen and/or Acetaminophen–for minor pain and fever
- Aspirin–may be useful to prevent blood clots when flying. Also for fever etc.
- Oral Rehydration Salts. The very best way to treat dehydration. Must be mixed with clean water.
- Sudafed or other decongestant that won’t make you drowsy.
- Imodium AD or Lomotil for diarrhea.
- Calamine or Caladryl for Poison Ivy etc.
- Terbinafine (Lamisil) or Miconazole (Micatin) cream, for “athlete’s foot” fungal infections.
- Antacid such as Maalox, Mylanta or TUMS
- Afrin or other decongestant nasal spray (particularly if your ears bother you when flying). These medications should never be used for more than three days.
- Artificial tears and or Naphazoline Opthalmic drops–if airline air bothers you or if you are prone to dry, irritated eyes.
Discuss these with your doctor. Remember to follow all instructions, and use the antibiotics only if necessary. Overuse of antibiotics is a real problem that results in unnecessary allergic reactions, resistant bacteria (“superbugs”) and a host of other problems.
- Your regular medications–packed carefully, in your carry-on, in original pill bottles, with an extra set included in your checked luggage.
- Letter from your doctor explaining all prescription medications, or a written copy of all your prescriptions. For curious customs agents.
- Zithromax (a “Z-Pack”)–for respiratory infections, especially if you suffer from emphysema or other chronic respiratory disease.
- Ciprofloxacin–to treat Travelers’ Diarrhea (read about this condition so you know when to use antibiotics and when not to).
- Scopalomine Patch or Scopace (oral) — if you are prone to severe motion sickness
- Epinephrine Pen (“Epi-Pen”). For treatment of severe allergic reactions
- Ocuflox (ofloxacin ophthalmic solution)–an excellent multi-use antibiotic for the eyes.
- Alocril eye drops (Nedocromil Sodium)–if you are prone to allergic eye symptoms.
- Acetazalomide (Diamox)–for travel to very high altitudes. Discuss with your physician or with a travel medicine specialist.
- Ambien, Sonata or other agents to treat jet lag.
- Keflex or Dicloxacillin–for skin infections. These infections are hard to diagnose so you’re likely to be better off seeking medical attention than self-treating.
Other things to consider
- Narcotic pain medications such as Vicodin or Tylenol # 3. These can cause particular problems at customs so plan ahead.
- Cooking thermometer. You can avoid Travelers’ Diarrhea by making sure the food you eat is heated to at least 155 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Water purification gear. This is a big topic but remember to look into it if you’re going to the developing world.
- Medications to prevent Malaria–or other medications specific to your destination.
- Dental filling–if you’re traveling to someplace very remote, or if you’ve had trouble with painful fillings in the past.
- Sterile Pack–typically includes sterile needles, syringes, IV catheters, etc. If you are traveling someplace where sterile equipment may not be available, you can provide these to the doctors and nurses who take care of you in an emergency.
- Space blanket. I have a friend who tried one of these instead of his sleeping bag. He felt like he was out in space. But it’s certainly better than nothing and they pack up to extremely small sizes.
- Duct Tape. A million and one uses.
- Waterproof Matches.