Travel abroad is always an adventure. It only became possible for most of us due to hard work on multiple levels: money saved for years, sacrificing evenings out and local getaways, hard-earned vacation time from your job, planning, researching, and maybe big projects on hold to visit a destination on your bucket list. These are your dreams you are making a reality; after all, there is a lot vested in this.
All that can be done do to increase the success of your trip is essential. Life has a funny way of throwing hurdles in our path. By running ourselves down before a trip, we are allowing bad health issues an easy way in. As a result, it increases the size of those hurdles. Once we are on our trip, we are exposed to environments we are not accustomed to, and our risk for injury increases. We eat food that our bodies haven’t experienced; we are exposed to illnesses new to our immune system; we are jetlagged, dehydrated, and tired. Despite all that craziness, the joy and life-altering experience you will gain will make it all worth it.
I have been a nurse for too many decades than I wish to admit. It was a profession I am honored to be part of and would do again in a heartbeat. It served me well professionally and in the care of my loved ones and friends. I loved my patients, and these amazing people have brought so much to life, more than I ever gave them. In working with my patients over the years, I learned how important it is to give patients knowledge and power, which is gained through education and understanding. That lesson is transferable to taking control of your travel health too.
Since I strongly believe knowledge is power, and as a result, that empowers all of us to take control of our health. Therefore, my goal is to teach you and guide you on how to stay healthy during travel and what medical supplies you need to address most issues you could face. I will go over what the items are, how they work and why they are important. As we progress, I share stories from my own medical travel mishaps and experiences. This is your dream; it deserves everything you can do to make it a beautiful one. Let’s get you prepared.
Learning The Hard Way
Before I present and review the list, let’s discuss what you can do in preparation to start your trip with your best foot forward. All the medicines in the world in your travel medical supplies will not do much if you start in bad shape. Sometimes we put ourselves in more harm in the chaos of our pre-trip madness. I can speak to that on levels. My nature is to have way too many irons in the fire, and I move way too fast, which is not so smart since I am clumsy by nature.
My most recent calamity was on our last trip to Croatia. Exactly 20 days before, I made the simplest twist to put a shirt on a pile while putting away laundry. Something popped in my knee, and I was in instant excruciating pain, completely unable to bear weight whatsoever on my leg. I had no doubt I was in big trouble. After an MRI, I was diagnosed with a severe tear of the meniscus in my right knee. It was the one joint in my body I never had a single issue with; go figure. I was nervous because I was sure we would have to cancel the trip. Then there was that other side of me that was determined not to let it happen. Yep, I am stubborn that way. After the acute phase, I did all I could to push through.
I left on that trip with a knee brace and cane, returning weeks later in dramatically less pain and without a cane. It is important to push through; it is best to rise above life’s hurdles so nothing stops you from your dreams. This is one of many mishaps and health issues I have had before travel and a few during trips. I do not take my own advice too often to get healthier before the trip.
We can adjust our travel style if needed as life’s surprises come at us. But if we can get ourselves in a better state of mind and health before we leave, the odds will improve in our favor. If we are well-rested, strong, and healthy, whatever the travel Gods throw at us, we will be way better prepared.
Get Healthy, Mind and Body, Before You Go
Here are my top suggestions to get yourself in the best health before your adventure.
- In the months before your trip, start increasing your walking every day. Try to include hills and uneven surfaces. Strengthen those legs and feet. Wear the shoes you will take on the trip to break them in. Include stretches pre and post-walk to make your body a bit more limber and able to balance better.
- Drink lots of water daily, add some fresh lemon juice to detox a bit. If you take supplements, make sure not to miss any days to help your body be in the best condition it can be and, most importantly, strengthen your immune system. I start this about one months before my travels.
- Start packing early, 3-4 weeks, so you aren’t rushing or stressed at the last minute trying to get all you need together. Check out our Packing Tips page on that topic.
- Get lots of rest the week before your trip. I am well aware that is easier said than done but do your best. Some people believe you can start setting your body to the new clock. I am not on that boat, but if it works for you, go for it. Our jet-lag prevention routine works so well for us we don’t need to add some long-term intervention.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet; this the not the time for heavy fried food, lots of carbs, and sugar-heavy desserts.
- Treat yourself to a massage, pedicure, manicure or facial, or all of the above. Much of this you can do yourself if funds are limited. Having your skin in good shape and muscles relaxed promotes a healthy body and mind. It is important to care for yourself; you deserve it!
- Get a haircut or fresh color so you look as good as you feel.
Our Ultimate Travel Medical Supply List
I developed our travel medical supply list to make this gathering process easier for you. There are so many different products with varied names. It gets confusing for us, even in the medical profession. I will simplify for you not only what is needed but why it is on the list. Because if you understand why then that is safer for you and your travel companions.
Only one person in your travel team will need to put together the travel medical supplies kit if each person then carries their own prescription meds. Space and weight are limited; we need to make the best use of the space we have.
The list is a PDF that is printable in black and white and color. It is also downloadable to your computer. Click on the image below.
Check With Your Physician
The info given here is general and publicly available. That said, we are each our unique beings; what is ok for one person can be risky for another. Any meds on this list, even though they are over-the-counter, you should discuss with your physician. If you wonder why, here are a few examples:
- You have kidney disease or maybe even had a kidney removed to donate to a family member. Your kidneys are now compromised; therefore, you need extra protection. The over-the-counter med Ibuprofen, also known as Motrin, is processed through the kidneys and is often contraindicated with these medical conditions.
- Should you have a history of liver compromise or chronic liver disease, a physician may advise you to avoid Tylenol as it is processed through the liver.
- If you have GI issues, especially if you are prone to bleeding or on a blood thinner, aspirin and ibuprofen would be contraindicated. It reduces our ability to clot and increases bleeding risk. That is not a big issue for the average person, but it can be for some with such problems as ulcers.
In the current medical environment, we have made it very easy to ask our medical providers questions. It is often just an email away. An in-person visit is often not necessary or warranted. When in doubt, ask. They are your health care provider and are there to serve you and keep you healthy.
Let’s Start Working Through The List
The attached Medical travel supply list has basically three categories. Essential health supplies, over-the-counter meds, and a medical supply add-on if needed. I will go through each category. The list is a one-page PDF and is printable and downloadable. There are also two sections of blank lines. Based on your health situation, you may have specific items you need to make sure you bring with you. Do you have diabetes? Your blood glucose monitor, syringes, needles, and alcohol wipes can go on these lines. If you have sleep apnea, it could be your CPAP machine and supplies for it. It would be silly to have two medical supply lists, so we gave you space on ours.
There is some strong guidance here I can not emphasize enough. Whether flying domestically and especially internationally, the prescription meds you carry with you must be their original bottle. That bottle should have your name, the physician’s name, the name of the drug, and the dose. It should match the name on your passport.
You should have a list from your physician detailing the medications, dose, and why you are on them to be cautious. Though I personally have never been asked at customs, I know some people who have. With most medical systems now using Electronic Medical Records, you should be able to download this list on your own from your online record without having to request anything from the doctor.
As stated above, prescriptions need to be in the packaging they were dispensed to you in. There are several good reasons for these safeguards.
- When not in a pill container, they are not secure and get into the hands of children.
- If you were to get ill overseas, the physicians there would want to see those prescription bottles. Some of our medicines in the US may not be available in that country. A pharmacist with the original bottle can figure that out and find a safe alternative.
- It is illegal in most countries to have prescription meds, not in their labeled container. You could have these meds confiscated from you at customs if not properly packaged.
- If you become ill, requiring assistance in taking your meds during a trip, each medication needs to be clearly labeled. The people assisting you need to verify they are giving the correct medication and dose.
- You could be charged with a crime if you have narcotics in a non-prescription container that does not match your name. Therefore narcotics must stay in their original container.
Bring Extra Days of Your Prescription Meds
There is a hard and fast rule to adhere to; bring more prescription meds than the length of your trip. At times events can occur that are out of your control; for example, you could get ill or injured, or there could be a natural disaster at either end of your travels that delays your departure. Many people were stuck without flights home or on cruise ships with their meds running out during the COVID Pandemic. Be prudent and bring at least twice the number of meds of days on the trip. Keeping in mind that this is not the US where you can FedEx pills overnight. Anything that goes international must go through customs, and prescription medications have some strict restrictions tied to them.
As noted above, it is in your best interest to have a list of your medications, doses, reasons you are on that med, your medical conditions, and your physician’s name with contact info in your travel medical supplies. This list should stay in the same container that you have your prescription meds.
Always put your meds within an outside container. I use either a packing cube or a mesh bag. Ideally, it should be relatively clear so the contents can be easily visible to people who may be inspecting your bags. Large Ziploc bags work too, but I prefer something a bit more secure that has a zipper.
Keep in mind prescriptions are not just needed for medications. Some devices need prescriptions as well. Needles for injection, some glucose monitors, insulin pumps, etc. It would be ideal if you carry your prescriptions with you, or these items could be confiscated.
Over the counter meds
How to stay healthy during travel involves being ready for illness and injuries. For serious events, of course, you seek medical care. Most of the time, it is likely something you would normally take care of on your own. That is now possible with the items in your travel medical supplies. But if you are on those people who say, well, if I need anything, I will buy it there, you may be in for a shock. There are many reasons why:
- In Europe, it is rare to find stores open 24 hours a day, as we see in the states. You will likely see most shops closed early Saturday and possibly not open up until Monday in rural communities. Even in cities, it is hard to find a Pharmacy open in the evening. If you get ill Saturday, it may be a long wait before you can get meds.
- Let’s say you get a horrible head cold, and you normally take Nyquil, or Sudafed, or Benadryl. All are easy to get here in the states. In some places in Europe, all of those would need prescriptions. This was the case in Norway when I was there with my husband in early 2020. We had both developed colds and were taking lots of medicines for our symptoms. I had various cold medicines packed, but the supplies were dwindling, with both of us sick.
We checked at every pharmacy in several areas of Norway, and bottom line, we could not get those meds. I never ran out, but we would have been miserable if we had. Please do not assume you can get them there. Some countries have meds that are prescription here, and the pharmacist can dispense at their discretion. But unless you know for sure, don’t take the risk. Plus, the medications they have there we don’t have in the states. You don’t know if they are contraindicated to your health or interact with your prescription meds.
- We mention colds, but GI issues can hit you hard when traveling. You are eating food you aren’t used to and are exposed to some food-borne illnesses your body is unfamiliar with. Sadly I have been severely food poisoned on a couple of trips. I wasn’t even sure where I got it as I ate nothing odd or unique in the days before. Getting through that 24-48 hours can be misery without the right meds.
- Then there are rashes, burns, skin infections, bad cuts, blisters, mild strains and sprains, falls with bruising, and allergic reactions. All these are easily dealt with when you have the medication and supplies to address these issues in your travel medical kit.
- By being ready at the sign of your first symptoms, you may be able to stave off more serious illnesses.
What Over-The-Counter Meds Should You Bring
I have provided a list of the medications on the travel medical supply list you should carry with you when traveling, especially overseas. Most of these items are on the CDC’s list of what you should travel with to stay healthy. I will go over each med on the list to help you understand what it is for. The whole list I give would easily fit in a gallon Ziploc. My collection takes up less as I condense some meds into the same container.
WARNING: Please verify with your physician that none of these meds are contraindicated with your current prescription or for your medical conditions. Don’t assume.
Ibuprofen, also known as Motrin, is an anti-inflammatory in the NSAID family. It works for pain, inflammation, and as a fever reducer. The over-the-counter strength is 200 mg every 4-6 hours. Prescription-strength is higher; check with your physician what dose you can take. Ibuprofen can be found in some combination cold and flu medicines; verify the active ingredient list before taking it.
Acetaminophen, also know as Tylenol, is a pain reliever and fever reducer. Its over-the-counter strength is 650 to 1000 mg every 4 hours. There is NO prescription strength. The max dose, no matter the circumstances, is 1000 mg every 4 hours. Many cold and flu medicines contain Tylenol as well as some prescription narcotics. Always look at the ingredients list to make sure you don’t double up. This drug can be toxic to the liver if not taken as directed.
Aspirin, also known a Bayer, is a pain reliever, fever reducer, and anti-inflammatory. It also can be used as a blood thinner. It is part of the NSAID family. The standard dose is 650 mg every 4 hours. There is no prescription dose for its over-the-counter uses. Historically I don’t usually take aspirin, but the current recommendation is if someone feels chest pain that could be a heart attack, take one aspirin immediately as you call 911. I always have some in my travel medical supply. It should never be taken simultaneously as another NSAID unless in a situation like sudden chest pain.
Diphenhydramine HCL or better known as Benadryl is an antihistamine. As our bodies develop an allergic response, it releases histamine; Benadryl competes with the histamine at the cellular level. Therefore, Benadryl is used for allergic reactions, runny nose, itching, and sneezing. It is an interesting little drug that has many uses. Benadryl also can be useful as a sleep aid for cough, nausea, and allergic rashes. It does cause drowsiness, so best to use it at bedtime. The adult over-the-counter dose is 25-50 mg. The prescription dose is the same.
A valuable tip: Everyone should carry this medication on them at all times. Allergic reactions can occur at any time with no warning. Until medical help can arrive, getting this into someone can mean the difference between life or death.
Meclizine, also known as Antivert, is an antihistamine used to prevent and treat nausea, vomiting, vertigo, and dizziness associated with motion sickness. This drug is comparable to Dramamine but preferable as it causes less drowsiness. It also is longer acting than Dramamine as well. The over-the-counter dose is 25-50 mg taken before travel and every 24 hours after. There are different prescription strengths based on the diagnosis. I will never travel without this med. See the sidebar about my experience with meclizine and seasickness.
Tums, Pepto Bismol, Alka Seltzer, and Prilosec. I pack these varied stomach meds, each with its own purpose but some work better in some situations vs. others. For that mild acid stomach when I haven’t eaten, tums serve that well. Pepto Bismol is for that mild upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea. Alka seltzer is for when you overeat and have indigestion. That can happen a lot on a European trip! Finally, Prilosec is a proton pump inhibitor that decreases the stomach’s acid, which many call acid indigestion and GERD. In all of this GI, meds take as directed on the box.
Loperamide, also known as Imodium, is for treating sudden diarrhea, including travelers’ diarrhea. It works by slowing down the movement of the gut. Do not leave home without it! Since dosages can vary, take as directed on the box.
Senna, also known as Senokot, is a mild vegetable laxative to treat constipation. It treats short-term and occasional constipation. Take a directed on the box.
A stool softener such as Colace is a laxative that can be a bit stronger than Senna above.
Cold and Flu Medicines
Cold medicines. I prefer to avoid combination flu and severe cold meds. There are so many ingredients that can be taken at different time points when taken individually. Or maybe you only need two of the 5 that could be in the combo. I will list the ones I bring, but if you prefer the combo, fine, but be very aware of what is in the combo medication you are taking.
Pseudoephedrine HCL is also known as Sudafed, is a nasal decongestant. There are other decongestants, but I prefer this one. It is used for temporary relief of stuffy nose and sinus pain. It is also used in hay fever, allergies, and bronchitis. There are different concentrations, so follow the directions on the box. Sudafed does not have a different prescription level.
Guaifenesin is also known as Mucinex or Robitussin Cough Expectorant. This helps loosens congestion in your chest and throat by thinning and loosening your secretions. There are varied strengths and longer-acting slow reverse versions over the counter, so follow the box directions. There is a stronger prescription strength so ask your Dr what they suggest you take.
Combo Cold and Flu Meds
Suppose you have a favorite severe cold or flu medicine such as Nyquil, Dayquil, and a generic brand. I suggest packing a few days’ worths. Make sure you pack the original box so you know all the ingredients and dosages. Please note most of these combinations often have Sudafed (or similar drug), Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin, Benadryl, Tylenol, and in some cases aspirin or ibuprofen. You must be aware of exactly what is in the combo to NOT double up on these medications. This is especially important with Tylenol.
Nasal Spray for Congestion
Nasal spray, more commonly known as Afrin, is a decongestant. It works by shrinking blood vessels in the nasal passages, thus reducing nasal stuffiness. Take as directed on the box. I find sometimes it works better than any medications I take or use in combination with the cold meds above.
Vicks Vaporub travel size can help with clearing nasal passages and help with coughing. It also has some great other uses on travel, such as a bug repellant. Check it out here.
Cough and throat losenges
Cough and Throat Lozenges. Pick your favorite brand and have some always on you.
Hydrocortisone cream is a corticosteroid and is useful to treat redness, swelling, itching, and discomfort from various skin conditions. It works by activating natural substances in the skin to reduce swelling, redness, and itching.
Eye drops both for redness and moisturizing. Moisturizing drops can be found in single-use containers, which are nice to bring and easily portable.
Electrolyte mix in individual packages is a nice little addition to your travel medical supplies. They are usual because if you get some bad GI bug with vomiting and diarrhea, fluid loss can be significant. To combat the electrolytes you lose in the process, and this can help you recover.
Supplements for Colds
Finally, if you are a fan of taking supplements, and I am, I always take a nice size collection of Emergent C or Airborne, Zinc, Quercetin, and Echinacea. The recommendations for doses can be quite varied. Determine what works best for you.
Do you take daily vitamins and supplements? If you do, I have found a great solution to that. On Amazon, I found these great thicker quality mini baggies. I make a bag for each day of my trip. It can be a little tedious but so worth not sorting through them daily on the trip. I bring the mini baggie of vitamins, take it to breakfast and take it with food. If you are into Collagen or other such powder supplements, these bags will work as well.
Other Travel Medical Supplies
- First Aid Kit I bring two on every trip. One goes in my carry-on and one in my backpack. After looking for years, I have found one I like a lot on Amazon. It is all the most needed items and also leaves some space to add more. It is good to add some Neosporin, betadine ointment, some extra gloves, and a mini hand sanitizer.
- Ace Bandage Mild injuries happen, and often all you need is something to stabilize the injury. I bring a 3 inch one.
- Ziploc bags These can serve as ice bags on the trip. I take at least three in my travel medical supplies. I have taken several trips where I left injured, and I knew I would need an ice bag nightly. In those cases, I bring a traditional blue ice bag. A smaller one because in Europe, ice can be quite a commodity.
- Disposable gloves I always bring a sandwich size baggie size packed full of them. Trust me; there may be many times you wish you have gloves!
- Hand Sanitizer I always put one larger one, maybe a 3-ounce bottle, in my supplies. This bigger bottle then is used to refill the smaller bottles I take on day trips. I tend to over sanitize. But that is the nurse in me.
- Water purification tablets You could be traveling in a part of the world where earthquakes and other natural disasters can occur. Therefore, it is vital for you to have the ability to drink any water you have access to.
- Sanitizing wipes-Travel size This is valuable if you need to clean surfaces you may be working on to provide medical care or items in your hotel room like phones.
- Masks Since Covid but even before they could come in handy if you become ill or are in the situation you are around many ill people. In Covid times they are a requirement. I never leave without some. I bring both disposable and cloth masks.
- Aloe VeraGel-Travel Size Though I rarely need it when I do, it is gold. Bring a small tube. It will get you by until you can get to a store.
A huge part of being prepared is to have the information you need with you at all times to get help. This important info should always be at your fingertips at all times. Not just for yourself but your travel companion as well. You can make your own with an index card. It should include the following info:
- Full name
- Home Country
- Passport number
- Medical Conditions
- Emergency Contacts at home
- Travel insurance company with policy number, website, and contact number
- Health insurance info with policy number, website, and contact number
- US Embassy info and contact number
- Phone info to dial in and out of the country
- Emergency numbers for medical and police emergencies
We have a Wanderers Compass Travel Emergency Contact Card in development, which we will be releasing shortly for our subscribers. It will have all this info in one wallet-size card. We carry one of each member of our travel group.
Blank Space For Your Travel Medical Supplies
Space was left in both columns on our checklists so you can add what items are important to you. If you have diabetes, your supplies can go here. Have a diagnosis of severe asthma or allergies, your inhaler and epi-pen can go the list; if you have over-the-counter meds you regularly use, they can go there as well.
Optional Suggestion-Medical Kit
Sticking with the motto of always being prepared, I always bring a small medical device set in my travel medical supplies. I will address each item and why I bring them.
These items I keep in a black mesh bag. They don’t take up much room and weigh little. It gives me peace of mind to have it not just for myself and my travel companions but also for others if I am called to help.
Thermometer Oral digital
Pretty darn self-explanatory. Because if you have a fever, you should know. If it is severe, you can seek medical care more quickly and report what your temps have been.
This is a little device that goes on your finger that reads your blood oxygen level. It also reads your heart rate, and some new models can detect irregular rates. In COVID days, they became coveted items and hard to get. If you develop a respiratory issue, the biggest question is are you getting enough oxygen. This is easy and quick to assess that. That data point can help determines if it is warranted to go to the hospital. I am never without one. They can be purchased on Amazon, at most Pharmacies, Costco, etc. They are relatively inexpensive. Look for ones with lots of reviews!! Check out the sidebar about why I never travel without one.
Blood Pressure Cuff
Wrist BP cuff. Though elevated BP can affect all ages, it is more of an issue for older populations or people who are on blood pressure medication. The cuff is light and easy to carry and provides good info if you run into issues. It also tracks your heart rate.
It is a useful tool for people who know how to use them. That can be people who have family members with asthma, COPD, or other respiratory issues. There are certain things you can only determine if you can listen. I have once used it on an airplane emergency I was assisting with.
I like to bring a few syringes without needles. Evidently, these can have several uses but mostly for the irrigation of wounds. The syringes can measure liquid medicines for children and come in handy for adults on liquid meds.
Batteries for the Above Items
Two of the above items may need batteries. I always bring two extra sets and keep them in the mesh bag.
How to stay healthy during travel is something you have quite a bit of control over. The travel medical supply list provided here is one way to assist in that goal. It seems like it would take up a lot of room, but I assure you it doesn’t. If it increases your chances of travel success and averts more serious problems, it becomes priceless. The lesson here the access and quality of items you need may not be available to you when you are abroad, so you need to bring them with you. I will buy it over there will work clothes or snacks. It is not a good rule when dealing with health issues.
Travel health and safety is about being prepared for the what if’s. Hopefully, you can avoid more serious illness or eliminate the time seeking medications or medical care if you are ill. Your health and safety are paramount. This is your dream to travel; keep it as safe and healthy as possible.
Stay well and strong during your adventures!!
A wonderful source that provides country-specific health risks and information comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These pages are packed with essential tools for travel, the focus to keep travelers healthy. Learn what vaccines and medicines are needed for your destinations. Keep on top of current alerts, warnings, and if there are any preventable diseases, you should make efforts to avoid them. There are extensive health tips on how to stay safe and healthy during your travels.
This traveler’s health page is an invaluable resource. Find it here
Our country travel guides also have the link to the specific country page at the CDC. This can be found in the resources section of the travel guide. Our full country travel guide list can be found on our Destinations page. Click here.