How to Stock First-Aid Kit Medications

When building a first aid kit, build it for the medical emergencies you expect to see. It's a given that you'll include items for burns, cuts, and scrapes. Depending on the level of injuries you expect, you may even include splints and wraps for sprains or broken bones.

Deciding whether or not to include medications may be a tougher decision. This article explains the purpose of first aid kits, things to keep in mind as you consider stocking them with medications, and common medications to include.

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Drugs or Not?

Despite having many different medications in the medicine cabinet at home, people often forget about drugs when building first aid kits. But, on the other hand, just because you have drugs in your medicine cabinet at home doesn't mean you should put them in your first aid kit.

Whether or not you want medication in your first aid kit depends on how you plan to use it. Considering the purpose of the kit may help you determine whether medications are appropriate.

  • Sports: If your kit is for organized sports, it may be best not to include drugs. An alternative would be to suggest that participants or parents bring their own. Providing over-the-counter (OTC) medications may expose you to liability, so be sure to consult with a lawyer and check the laws in your state before including them in a kit used outside of your immediate household.
  • Family members: If family members primarily use your first aid kit, you may want to include drugs. With family, you don't have to worry about liability issues. Plus, you likely already keep track of everyone's medication allergies.
  • Travel: Travel kits are intended to prepare travelers for potential medical needs. These kits will likely need some drugs since getting medications may not be simple, depending on where you're traveling.
  • Home: First aid kits for the home may or may not contain medication. It depends on whether the first aid kit is part of the medicine cabinet or not.

Drugs are so common that we sometimes don't even realize when we're using them. For example, topical drugs like antibiotic ointment and bee sting swabs are often included in first aid kits. These topical treatments are medications, but they often do not have the same ethical dilemma as oral medications.

First Aid Kit Maintenance

Putting medication into a first aid kit means that you need to maintain the kit more than if drugs weren't there. That's because drugs expire. If they are not regularly checked and replaced, you run the risk of a drug not working properly when it's needed.

Get into the habit of checking the first aid kit when you replace the batteries in your smoke alarms. A good rule of thumb is to do both twice a year. Many people do this when they set their clocks back and ahead during daylight savings time.

Risks

When stocking a first aid kit or your medicine cabinet, there are a couple of risks to keep in mind.

Combination Drugs

Combination drugs are those that treat more than one symptom. These medications usually have more than one active ingredient.

Examples of OTC Combination Drugs

  • Pain relievers combined with cough suppressants, decongestants, and antihistamines
  • Pain relievers combined with sleep aids
  • Acetaminophen combined with aspirin and caffeine
  • Ibuprofen combined with pseudoephedrine
  • Decongestant combined with analgesic
  • Decongestant combined with an antihistamine


Instead of choosing combination drugs, read the labels and look for drugs with only a single active ingredient. There are several reasons for this:

  • Expiration dates: Combination drugs only last as long as the drug that expires first. If two drugs with different shelf lives are combined, they'll expire together when the shorter one is past its prime. If you purchase the two drugs separately, you'll only have to replace one when the expiration date comes.
  • Single drugs are cheaper: Combination drugs are also less likely to be sold as generics, which are a proven way to get cheaper medications. In addition, milligram for milligram, combination drugs are almost always more expensive than singles.
  • Take only what you need: You don't always want all the effects of a combination drug. For example, if you need a drug for fever, and all you have is a drug that combines a fever-reducer with an antihistamine, you may end up feeling drowsy when you didn't need to. Stocking singles means you can combine them when necessary or take them separately.

Drug-to-Drug Interactions

There are certain drugs you should never take together. This consideration is especially important for people who take medication regularly.

For instance, adverse drug interactions can occur when someone uses nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. Often drug-to-drug interactions occur between NSAIDs and other medications. These could include:

  • NSAIDs and aspirin
  • NSAIDs and alcohol
  • NSAIDs and some antihypertensives
  • NSAIDs and antidepressants
  • NSAIDs and antirheumatics
  • NSAIDs and chemotherapy
  • NSAIDs and corticosteroids
  • NSAIDs and some herbal remedies (like St. John's Wort and Ginkgo)

Due to these risks, be careful when considering including NSAIDs in a first aid kit.

Recap

When building a first aid kit, avoid combination drugs. Instead stick to single-use medications.

In addition, remember that drug-to-drug interactions may occur, especially with NSAIDs for people on certain medications or who have some health conditions.

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers and fever reducers are the most basic drugs to put in a first aid kit. These drugs provide relief for many minor aches, pains, and illnesses.

Three kinds of pain relievers are often used in first aid kits:

  • NSAIDs
  • Acetaminophen
  • Topical anesthetic

NSAIDs and acetaminophen can also reduce fevers. However, all have distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are available as OTC drugs and can relieve pain and reduce fevers. However, NSAIDs can cause gastric upset in some people.

  • Ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) is generally considered the safest of the three for all ages. It relieves muscle aches and pains and reduces fever.
  • Naproxen (Aleve) is very tough on the stomach, but it is a strong pain reliever that lasts for 12 hours.
  • Aspirin thins the blood and may cause bleeding problems. In addition, kids should not use it because it has been linked to Reye's Syndrome.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) reduces pain and fever without reducing inflammation. Unfortunately, that means it does not really help with swelling or redness caused by injury. Acetaminophen has also been shown to be hard on the liver.

Benzocaine or Lidocaine

Topical anesthetics like benzocaine (such as Orajel) or lidocaine (BenGay, Aspercreme) are applied directly to skin surfaces or mucous membranes (such as the inside of the mouth). They cause numbing and reduce pain.

These drugs do nothing to reduce inflammation or fever and usually do not last very long. They can easily wash off with water. They may be useful for the quick treatment of minor scrapes, toothaches, and bug bites.

Recap

NSAIDs, acetaminophen, and topical anesthetics are available OTC as pain relievers.

Allergy Medication

Allergies are common and can be especially bothersome when traveling. So if you're building a travel first aid kit, you might consider stocking it with allergy medications.

Lotions are also available to treat itching from plants or other skin irritants.

Diphenhydramine

Considered the gold standard of allergy medications, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is an antihistamine that relieves all types of allergic reactions. It's even used by emergency medical services to treat or prevent anaphylaxis.

The biggest side effect of diphenhydramine is drowsiness. In fact, this side effect is so common that diphenhydramine is also used as a sleep aid.

In addition, some people use the medication off-label to treat nausea. The problem with using diphenhydramine as a nausea medication is the same as using it for allergies; it causes drowsiness.

Diphenhydramine is not for use in kids under 6 years old.


Diphenhydramine is also available as a cream, often combined with calamine lotion. You can use it on bug bites, poison oak, and poison ivy. As a cream, diphenhydramine should not make you feel drowsy.

Loratadine

If you do not want to feel drowsy, loratadine (Claritin) may work better for you as allergy medication. Loratadine is a newer antihistamine to the market than diphenhydramine and is usually more expensive.

Besides being used for allergies, antihistamines are also used as nausea medications — especially from vertigo or motion sickness. So, it may be included in travel first aid kits as a nausea medication.

Nausea medications often cause drowsiness, blurred vision, dry mouth, and may cause spasms in the neck, jaw, or tongue.

Recap

Antihistamines can help control allergy symptoms. They often also have a side effect of controlling nausea. As some cause drowsiness, they may double as a sleep aid.

Nausea and Stomach Upset

Motion sickness and stomach upset are common when traveling. Therefore, travel first aid kits often contain medication for nausea and diarrhea.

Dimenhydrinate

Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) is the most common OTC nausea medication. It's used primarily to combat motion sickness. Dimenhydrinate causes drowsiness, but it is OK to use in kids as young as 2 years old.

Meclizine

The newest nausea medication to be approved for sale OTC, meclizine has long been used as a prescription for vertigo. However, it is also useful for non-medical causes of motion sickness, like rocking boats or turbulent airplanes.

Meclizine's more recent past as a prescription-only nausea medication means it may be more expensive than dimenhydrinate. In addition, meclizine is not for use in kids under 12.

Loperamide

Loperamide (Imodium) is the active ingredient in almost all anti-diarrhea medications on the market. Since unfamiliar organisms in food and water can cause travelers to develop some gastric upset, you may want to consider packing anti-diarrhea medications in travel first aid kits.

Known as "traveler's diarrhea," the most important way to prevent it is to avoid it. For example, avoid drinking tap water when heading to an unfamiliar destination.

Antacids

Besides traveler's diarrhea, strange germs or changes in diet can lead to stomach upset and heartburn. Therefore, antacids might also be a good idea for a travel first aid kit or suitcase.

Recap

Medications for motion sickness, diarrhea, and heartburn may be especially helpful in travel first aid kits.

Summary

Including medication in a first aid kit can be tricky since some people may have bad reactions to certain medications. However, if your first aid kit is for your own family, the decision may be easier.

When deciding what drugs to include in a first aid kit, remember that there are some risks. Specifically, watch out for combination drugs and drug-to-drug interactions.

Common OTC medicines that many people add to first aid kits include pain relievers and fever reducers, allergy medicine, and medication that quells stomach upset.

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