Let’s face it. A travel medicine bag isn’t many people’s priority when it comes to putting together that all-important packing list.
But it should be. You never know when you might come down with a cough or cold, have a bout of diarrhoea or take a tumble. A good traveller is always prepared.
However, many travellers are unsure as to exactly which products they should pack. So what should you include in a travel medicine kit?
This is where I can help you, both as a frequent traveller and as a healthcare professional.
In the course of many adventures in 70+ countries, I’ve experienced my fair share of sniffles, scrapes and sprains. Fortunately, as a registered pharmacist, I know how to deal with these as they arise.
However, I’ve only been able to manage these minor medical emergencies because I’ve packed the right medicines and first aid items. This travel medical kit has evolved over the years and I have honed my selection of pills and potions to a collection that covers most of the bases.
In this article, I will share the contents of my trusty DIY travel medicine kit and give you expert advice on what you should consider when packing medicines for travel.
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What Should I Pack in my Medicine Bag for Travel?
There is no such thing as a definitive travel medicine kit. Much will depend on your age, gender and medical conditions, your destination, style of travel and your attitude to medicines.
It’s all a question of balance. Whilst you won’t want to lug around a medical kit that a paramedic would be proud of, at the same time you should include essential items to cover your basic healthcare needs and emergencies.
Consider Your Destination and Trip Style When Packing Your Travel Medicine Kit
Consider where you are travelling to, and for how long, when deciding which medicines and first aid items to include in your travel medical kit.
Chances are you will not need an extensive selection of medicines, bandages and gauzes on a flashpacking European city break. However, it’s a different story if you are trekking in the Himalayan foothills where access to doctors and pharmacies isn’t a given.
Heading to a high-altitude destination? If so, then you may want to get your hands on preventative treatment before leaving home.
Travelling to a malaria zone? Then. don’t forget your antimalarial medication.
Consider Your Personal Health Needs When Packing a Travel Medicine Bag
Although this may be blindingly obvious, you should consider your personal health needs when packing for a trip. For example; if you are a woman who suffers from menstrual cramps, include your preferred remedy in your travel medicine kit.
What’s in my DIY Travel Medicine Kit
As a pharmacist, I have honed my collection to one that covers most of the bases, and my medicines fit snugly into a semi-rigid plastic pouch from Muji.
Let’s take a closer look at its contents and why they are included. You can buy all of the medicines in my travel kit over-the-counter in the UK without needing a doctor’s prescription.
Medicine for Travel: Essential Items
PAIN KILLER: PARACETAMOL 500mg
Paracetamol (acetaminophen if you are American) is a highly effective pain-killer and it also helps to bring down your temperature if you have an infection. I have used it for headaches, for cold and ‘flu symptoms and for – whisper it – hangovers.
Don’t leave home without it.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY: IBUPROFEN 200MG
Like paracetamol, ibuprofen is a painkiller and can be used in much the same way. However, it is also anti-inflammatory and so is useful for soft tissue injuries (strains and sprains).
Many women prefer it to paracetamol to relieve period pain.
If you have asthma or have had stomach problems (ulcers) you may not be able to use ibuprofen; check with your doctor or pharmacist.
The choice of paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat headaches and to bring down the temperature is entirely up to you.
Many people find that one works better than the other for them. For example, I find paracetamol is usually effective in killing a headache but ibuprofen barely touches it.
If like me, you suffer from hay fever or have allergies, an antihistamine is an essential part of your travel medicine kit. Antihistamines are also invaluable for relieving itchiness from hives and insect bites, including pesky mozzie bites.
My traveller’s medical kit usually has a strip of whichever antihistamine I have to hand. Usually, this is acrivastine but good alternatives are loratadine or cetirizine, neither of which is likely to make you drowsy.
If you want a sedating antihistamine, go for the older drug, chlorphenamine (chlorpheniramine).
Although antihistamine creams are also available, I am less keen on these. They are not as versatile as tablets, and in rare cases can cause skin sensitisation.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY CREAM: HYDROCORTISONE CREAM 1%
I always pop a tube of hydrocortisone cream in my travel medicine bag.
Although it is used primarily for eczema – some people find that eating different foods makes their skin condition flare up – it is also excellent at relieving the itchiness of mosquito bites.
You don’t need to use a lot of hydrocortisone cream. Make sure that you apply it in a very thin layer.
DIARRHOEA MEDICINE: LOPERAMIDE 2MG
Think of loperamide (Imodium) as a pharmaceutical cork.
Call it what you like; Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, Backdoor Trots. Most of us will have been struck down by travellers’ diarrhoea (TD), usually at the worst possible time.
Trust me; clenching your buttocks on a long-distance bus journey is not much fun. This is where these little green and grey capsules are worth their weight in gold. They are particularly helpful if you have colicky-type pain.
There is some debate as to whether the use of loperamide prolongs TD by retaining the offending bug. The consensus seems to be to let it all flow out, reserving loperamide for those situations where TD may affect travel plans.
My approach is to do exactly that, reserving the use of loperamide for emergencies; to avoid being caught short on a bus or train journey for example.
Codeine and diphenoxylate/atropine (Lomotil) are alternatives to loperamide but I don’t recommend them as they carry a higher risk of side effects for no great gain. Also, you need a doctor’s prescription for these medicines.
Some people take away antibiotics with them to self-treat. The choice of antibiotic depends on the destination.
You will need a doctor’s prescription. A common antibiotic that travellers include in their medical kit is ciprofloxacin.
Your priority in treating travel diarrhoea or sickness is to keep hydrated. Therefore, I always pop a couple of rehydration sachets with electrolytes in my traveller’s medical kit.
It goes without saying that the water that you use to reconstitute these sachets should be safe
If you don’t have these sachets to hand you can drink other clear fluids, such as diluted fruit juices, as an alternative.
MOTION SICKNESS TABLETS
For those journeys across switchback mountain passes and across choppy waters, I use cinnarizine (Stugeron) tablets, which do the trick but can cause drowsiness.
Another popular choice is hyoscine hydrobromide (Kwells) but I find that it gives me a dry mouth.
Some people swear by acupressure bands (Sea-Band).
Other Items To Consider Putting in your DIY Travel Medicine Bag
Think Gaviscon or Pepto Bismol. For those times when you overindulge in delicious food or have a few extra drinks.
What’s NOT in my Travel Medical Kit
PROPRIETARY COLD AND FLU REMEDIES
This is polypharmacy at its worst. Proprietary cold and flu medicines are cocktails of unnecessary drugs at sub-therapeutic doses.
Save your money and precious packing space. Just take paracetamol or ibuprofen for cold and ‘flu symptoms. If you feel bunged up, a decongestant such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can be useful.
Expert Tips for Packing Your Travel Medicines
- You don’t need to take vast quantities of these medicines and first aid items; just enough to get by until you can replenish your supplies at a pharmacy or drugstore. For example, I take just a strip or two of tablets
- Choose strips of tablets instead of bottles to save precious packing space.
- For the same reason, remove strips from their boxes. But if you are unfamiliar with how to take the medicine, make sure to keep the instructions.
- Where possible, opt for tablets over liquids, gels and creams.
Travel First Aid Items
STICKING PLASTERS (BAND-AIDS)
A few sticking plasters of different sizes are an essential component of my travel medicine kit.
The most common injuries are cuts and grazes and you don’t need to be an ardent trekker for blisters to appear.
But what about if your injury is bigger than a small cut or graze?
A bog-standard crepe bandage is invaluable for keeping a small dressing in place until you get it looked at by a healthcare professional.
Gauze is one of the most useful items in your travel first aid kit.
A gauze square can be used to clean an injury, apply pressure to a wound to help stop bleeding, and dress a small wound. When used as a dressing, it can be held in place by a crepe bandage or surgical tape.
To keep the wound clean and sterile, pack individually wrapped sterile gauze squares.
I also always carry a few sealed alcohol wipes for wound cleansing.
Again, to prevent wounds from becoming infected and to help them heal faster, it’s a good idea to pack an antibacterial cream like Neosporin.
SMALL SCISSORS & TWEEZERS
Both of these items come as standard in most first aid kits and are extremely versatile items to bring with you on your travels.
Scissors are useful for trimming bandages or gauze to the desired dimensions. As well as grooming eyebrows, tweezers can be used to pull out splinters and to extract bits of stone or dirt from a wound.
Is It Worth Buying a Ready-Made Travel First Aid Kit?
For simplicity and for a travel first aid kit that will be packed to perfection, buying a ready-made travel first aid kit is a hassle-free option. You can be assured that the basics will be covered, and your travel healthcare essentials will come in their own sturdy and waterproof bag.
However, what you gain in convenience you lose in the ability to personalise your travel medical kit to your own needs. Also, as you will only include items that are essential for your trip, it’s likely that a DIY travel first aid kit will be cheaper than buying one online.
The Best Ready-Made Travel First Aid Kits
When choosing the best ready-made travel first aid kit, contents, size and weight are the key factors. Whilst you want to make sure you have enough of all of the essential items, you don’t want this to take up too much valuable real estate in your luggage.
Amazon has a good range of travel first aid kits and I’ve picked out the best lightweight and compact travel first aid kits that they have to offer.
Best Travel Health Resources
Here are my go-to websites for keeping healthy whilst on the road.
- fitfortravel – a free, interactive, resource providing up-to-date information on avoiding illness and staying healthy when travelling abroad.
- TRAVEL HEALTH PRO – a website comprising the travel health resources of the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC), set up by the UK’s Department of Health to protect the health of travellers.
- CDC TRAVELER’S HEALTH – an extensive collection of resources from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Travel Medicines: Final Tips From a Healthcare Professional
Think of this list of items for travel ailments, scrapes and bangs as a tool kit, to which you can add or subtract, according to your needs. In addition, you will need to include any prescribed medicines in your travel medicine bag.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have never taken any of the above medications before. Sometimes medicines don’t mix well together – oral contraceptives and antibiotics are good examples of this – and medical conditions or allergies may mean that it is unwise to take a certain medication.
For any injury or illness that cannot be remedied by the contents of your travel medical kit, or that does not respond to self-treatment, you should seek professional medical attention.
Although carrying these basic items will help you to deal with the vast majority of ailments and accidents as a traveller, it is no substitute for comprehensive travel insurance. As a mid-life traveller, I get my travel insurance from Staysure. It offers an excellent level of cover, including that against Covid-19, and has garnered 5-star reviews.
Finally, whilst it’s essential to be prepared, chances are that you will rarely need to use the items in your travel medical kit.
Safe and healthy travels!
Bridget Coleman is a registered pharmacist who has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.