Travelers often ask what they should put in a travel first aid kit or medical kit for travel. Commercial pre-packaged travel first aid kits are available in a variety of sizes, but I think the best option is to assemble your own travel medical kit that suits your personal health needs and travel habits.
It may take a few trips and trials to refine your kit's contents, but then you can keep it all together in one compact package to throw in your luggage at a moment’s notice.
My own “travel health kit” has evolved over time, usually by adding items I wish I’d had on a previous trip. Here are some key considerations and items to include:
Buying medications in foreign countries
Medications, even over-the-counter ones, often have different names or formulations in other countries. To avoid confusion, it’s best to bring familiar medications with you. It's also unlikely that you'll conveniently find a nearby pharmacy with your language spoken, the right product in stock, and open hours when needed. With the booming world trade in counterfeit medications, you want to avoid unknowingly buying a medication that is not effective, or worse can contain harmful ingredients.
Travel Vaccines and Routine Vaccines
Vaccines offer powerful protection against many diseases and should be part of your pre-travel preparation. Consult a travel health expert who can determine which vaccines you may need for your destination.
Do I need any special travel medications?
Some travel specific medications can be required for certain destinations or activities. These can include medications to prevent malaria or altitude sickness (also called prophylaxis). A travel health expert can provide the best guidance and prescriptions specific to your itinerary.
Should I Bring Antibiotics when I travel?
Travelers frequently request “antibiotics just in case”, but the only recommended antibiotic is to treat travelers’ diarrhea (to take as needed only). Other illnesses that you think may need an antibiotic warrant a proper medical evaluation, especially in tropical regions.
Traveling with Prescription Medications
When traveling, ensure your prescription medications are clearly labeled in their original containers. Be careful traveling with controlled substances (like opioids or stimulants), which may be scrutinized and even confiscated in some countries. See your prescriber well in advance of your trip and always carry extra doses in case of unexpected travel delays.
Bring your Medical History Information with you
Carry a legible (laminated if possible) card listing your medical conditions, prescription medications, allergies and any implanted devices. Also include contact information for your primary medical provider and emergency contact(s).
Should I carry an Epi-Pen when I travel?
ALWAYS carry a fresh Epi-pen® (epinephrine injector) with you if you have any serious allergies. Some destinations may not have nearby emergency care available. Also, consider a medical alert bracelet (even if you only use it for travel). If you become seriously injured or unconscious, you may be unable to communicate any serious medical conditions or allergies.
Should I bring my CPAP device when I travel?
If you use a CPAP device for sleep apnea, don’t leave it at home. Fortunately, modern CPAP machines are smaller and more portable. Restful sleep is even more critical when you are traveling or sleeping at an increased altitude.
OTC (over the counter) Pain Relievers
Also known as analgesics, these medications may have unfamiliar names abroad. I suggest packing a small amount of ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen, whichever works better for you. Familiarize yourself with the maximum safe dosage of each.
Loperamide for travelers’ diarrhea
Loperamide (Imodium®) is an essential treatment for travelers’ diarrhea, and a MUST HAVE item for anyone traveling to a resource poor country where you can’t drink the water. Even the local food is sometimes enough to make you “irregular”. Use it cautiously to avoid constipation.
Antacids/Laxatives for travel
An altered eating routine and unfamiliar foods can mess with your digestive tract. Everyone has their own unique gut habits and food tolerances. Personalize choices to your own needs. Chewable bismuth salicylate (Pepto Bismol®) can help with a variety of symptoms, from diarrhea to heartburn.
Cold remedies for traveling
Most mild upper respiratory infections (like a cold) will get better on their own, but the symptoms can be a nuisance. OTC cold preparations are numerous, but I recommend oxymetazoline (generic for Afrin®) nasal spray (DO NOT use for more than 3 or 4 days in a row) and lozenges for sore throat and/or irritating cough. Both can help you get much needed sleep.
Numerous OTC choices are available and can be helpful if you encounter unfamiliar allergens at your destination or accommodations. Most antihistamines can cause sedation as a side effect, which could be a benefit if you have trouble sleeping on long haul flights.
Medications to Prevent Motion Sickness
Some travelers are prone to motion sickness on boats, in vehicles or even snorkeling or diving. Both prescription and OTC preventive medications are available. See https://www.travelbughealth.com/bugs-blog/medications-to-prevent-and-treat-motion-sickness for more detailed suggestions.
Insect repellent is crucial for protection against insect-borne diseases like Malaria or Dengue Fever. Ultrathon® lotion containing DEET is an excellent choice.
Pack only what you need
Don't expect a travel first aid kit to cover every possible emergency; you DON’T need to have every possible thing in it (even if you always pack a prom dress - “just in case”). Plan for likely situations (such as sun, insect bites, terrain, boat rides) and only include things that you regularly use, would grab out of your own medicine cabinet, or have used within the last year. Here are some suggestions:
Essential travel First Aid Kit items
A personal Travel First Aid Kit should include a few basic items to treat minor physical injuries. Don’t go overboard. Minor skin wounds should be cleaned and covered immediately, until you have time to get them treated more thoroughly if needed. Here are some items to consider:
Self-adhesive bandages – Both small and large - have a few of each.
Topical antibiotic ointment – I recommend a small tube of Bacitracin.
Antiseptic wipes - Alcohol swabs are good for disinfecting small scratches or abrasions. I like the disinfectant wipes they hand out on some airlines, which are compact and can effectively clean up a road rash.
Zinc Oxide barrier cream – Think babies’ bottoms and Ozzie surfers. Excellent relief for friction rash from trekking through a wet jungle (personal experience) or an irritated bottom from diarrhea. Also, an effective substitute if you forget your sunscreen.
Compression bandage – Can be used to wrap an ankle, other sprain or even a wound. Find one with Velcro so you don’t need pins or adhesive tape.
Non-stick wound pads - (Telfa®) - Carry a few, preferrably self-adhesive.
Adhesive Blister Prevention tape or pads – Brand names include Moleskin® or Compeed®. KT Tape® (often used by sports trainers and physical therapists) can also work in a pinch.
Sunscreen – Get a travel size. SPF 30 is adequate. Use it.
Post-sunburn cream – Aloe gel preparations can provide good relief and speed healing.
Hydrocortisone cream (OTC 1%) – Offers relief from most itchy rashes.
Afterbite® – A unique product, the size of a makeup pen that provides relief from itchy insect bites.
Tweezers – To remove ticks or splinters. These can be very small and DO pass TSA screening regulations.
Disposable gloves – (bring a handful) They stuff easily and can be useful in so many situations.
Oral rehydration salts – It’s not a bad idea to have a few packets handy if you are visiting a cholera or typhoid endemic area, but if you are losing fluids that fast, you should seek medical treatment.
Small thermometer – Any persistent temperature over 100.4°F (38°C) can indicate a serious illness and should be evaluated by a medical professional.
Other Assorted items for your travel health kit
Ear plugs - Tiny and useful on airplanes and noisy accommodations.
Lubricating eye drops – These are usually very compact and provide instant relief, especially if you’re traveling somewhere dry and windy or wear contact lenses.
Masks – Bring at least 2, just in case. Masks are proven to reduce your chance of airborne illnesses, like from that coughing passenger in the plane seat next to you. A mask can also help you breathe easier in cities with air pollution (think Delhi). Wearing a mask also non-verbally communicates your desire to be kept at a distance. N95 or KN95 (Chinese made equivalent) standard masks work the best.
Condoms - Both men and women should carry them. Don’t laugh. Data shows that travelers are often less inhibited and take more risks when away from home. There is a very high incidence of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) including hepatitis B and HIV in many regions overseas.
Quart-size sealable freezer bags (Ziplok®)
The universal MUST HAVE. I don’t think you can have enough, for many reasons. They are:
- A convenient container for any small items, like collectibles, change, electronics or jewelry (I like to use them beachcombing)
- A neat and convenient lunch bag in a pinch
- The perfect container for your travel health kit items.
- Still the standard for presenting liquids at many airport security checkpoints
- Good for storing wet items or as an extra precaution for containers that could leak in your bags.
An illness or injury can signifcantly impact your travel experience. Think ahead and be prepared with a little bit of knowledge and a few compact items in your travel medical and first aid kit. Visit https://www.travelbughealth.com/ for more travel health tips and advice.