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. It is a much tougher decision whether or not to include medications.

Social aid for elderly person Senior woman with her carer.
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Drugs or Not?

We often forget all about drugs when building first aid kits, even though we have tons of different drugs in the medicine cabinet at home. On the other hand, just because you have drugs in your medicine cabinet doesn't mean you should put them in your first aid kit. Whether or not you want drugs in your first aid kit depends on how you plan to use it.

  • First aid kits intended for organized sports probably should not include drugs. It's better to suggest that participants or parents bring their own. However, it's not as big of a deal for adult sports as it is for kids — adults are generally responsible for their own decisions.
  • First aid kits designed for use primarily by family members will probably be fine with drugs included. There are fewer liability issues and it's easier to keep track of everyone's medication allergies.
  • Travel first aid kits will need some drugs. Travel kits are intended to prepare travelers for potential medical needs and getting drugs may be a problem depending on where you're traveling.
  • First aid kits for the home may or may not have drugs; 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. Antibiotic ointment, a staple of first aid treatment, is a drug. Bee sting swabs, used to relieve pain from bug bites, are also drugs. These topical treatments are medications, but they do not come with the same ethical dilemma as oral drugs (pills and elixirs).

First Aid Kit Maintenance

Putting drugs into a first aid kit means maintaining the kit more than if the drugs weren't there. Drugs expire. If drugs are not regularly checked and expired drugs not 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 alarm. A good rule of thumb is to do both when changing the clocks twice a year.

Avoid Combination Drugs

When stocking a first aid kit or your medicine cabinet, avoid combination drugs. Almost anytime a drug claims to treat more than one symptom, it usually has more than one active ingredient. Read the labels and look for drugs with only a single active ingredient. There are several reasons for this:

  • 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. Milligram for milligram, combination drugs are almost always more expensive than singles. Combination drugs are also less likely to be sold as generics, a proven way to get cheaper medications.
  • You don't always want all the effects of a combination drug. 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.

Assuming you still want to stock your first aid kit with drugs, the following examines each type of drug you may or may not want to include. The beauty of building your own first aid kit is that you can customize it any way you like.

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

Three kinds of pain relievers are good for first aid kits: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, and topical anesthetic. NSAIDs and acetaminophen can also reduce fevers. All three have distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

This class includes ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. All three are available as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and all three can relieve pain and reduce fevers. All three are also notorious for causing gastric upset in some people.

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


This is the only drug in this class. Its action is not fully understood, but acetaminophen reduces pain and fever without reducing inflammation, which means it does not really help with swelling or redness caused by injury. Acetaminophen has also been shown to be very hard on the liver.

Benzocaine or Lidocaine

Topical anesthetics like benzocaine or lidocaine are applied directly to skin surfaces or mucous membranes (such as the inside of the mouth) to 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 are very useful for the quick treatment of minor scrapes, toothaches, and bug bites.

Allergies are common when traveling. If you're building a travel first aid kit, consider stocking it with allergy medications. The two most common types of allergy pills sold over the counter include diphenhydramine and loratadine. Lotions are also available to treat itching from plants or other skin irritants.


Considered by most healthcare providers to be the gold standard of allergy medications, diphenhydramine provides relief from 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. This side effect is so common that diphenhydramine is also sold as a sleep aid.

Generally, buying diphenhydramine as an allergy medication is cheaper than as a sleep aid, so be sure to read the labels. Remember, there is no difference, so a bottle of diphenhydramine purchased as an allergy medication will also help you fall asleep. For this reason, diphenhydramine is a good drug to have in your first aid travel kit. Diphenhydramine is also available as a cream, often combined with calamine lotion. It's used on bug bites and poison oak or poison ivy. As a cream, diphenhydramine should not make you feel drowsy.


If you do not want to feel drowsy, loratadine may work better for you as an allergy medication. Loratadine is newer 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.It's a good idea to stock travel first aid kits with nausea medications.

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


Since diphenhydramine is the best of the allergy medications, it will probably already be in your first aid kit. The problem with using diphenhydramine as a nausea medication is the same as using it for allergies; it causes drowsiness. Not for use in kids under 6 years old.


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


The newest nausea medication to be approved for sale over the counter, meclizine has long been used as a prescription for vertigo. 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. Meclizine is not for use in kids under 12.

It's a good idea to pack anti-diarrhea medications in travel first aid kits. unfamiliar organisms in food and water will often result in travelers developing some gastric upset. Indeed, it's so common it has been dubbed "traveler's diarrhea." The most important way to prevent traveler's diarrhea is to avoid it. Don't drink the water is the most common recommendation travelers hear when heading to an unfamiliar destination, and that's a good start.


Loperamide is the active ingredient in almost all anti-diarrhea medications on the market.

Other Tummy Troubles

Besides Traveler's Diarrhea, strange germs or changes in diet can lead to stomach upset and heartburn. Antacids are also a good idea for a travel first aid kit or suitcase.

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