How to Travel With Medications

Stay Healthy and Save Money

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If you plan to travel to a foreign country, it is important that you provide for your medication needs before leaving. An illness in the middle of your trip can ruin your vacation and cost you money to get needed medications. Depending on the circumstances, buying medications in foreign countries can be expensive. Moreover, in some countries, you may be at risk of getting a counterfeit drug.

By thinking ahead and packing smart, you can stay healthy and enjoy your time.

Organize a Health Kit

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that travelers assemble a health kit containing current prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that can be used to treat minor problems. What you include in your health kit depends upon your destination and length of travel.

You also should anticipate some disruption in travel plans and take extra medication so you do not run out. For example, you do not want to be stuck in an airport for an extra day without your diabetes medication or pain medication used to treat arthritis.

Which OTC Medications Should I Pack?

Since it is not practical to pack your entire medicine cabinet, your travel destination and your itinerary may help you decide which medications to buy for your kit. For example, you are less likely to have diarrhea from drinking water in Canada than in Mexico. And, if you are planning a walking trip in London, you are less likely to need an anti-motion sickness medication.

The following are some basic medications to consider:

  • Anti-diarrhea medication: Foodborne illness is very common and may cause diarrhea in up to 30% of travelers. This is especially common in parts of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Pack Imodium (loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate).
  • Antihistamine: To treat an allergic reaction, pack an antihistamine that will not make you drowsy, such as Claritin (loratadine).
  • Anti-motion sickness medication: For a bumpy plane boat ride, pack some Dramamine (dimenhydrinate).
  • Medicine for pain or fever: Pack your preferred painkiller, such as acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.
  • Mild laxative or stool softener: Changes in your eating routine and access to different foods can cause constipation. Pack a laxative containing bisacodyl such as Dulcolax or a stool softener such as Colace (docusate).
  • Antifungal ointment or cream: Fungal infections of the skin, such as ringworm and athlete’s foot are common, especially in warm climates. Pack a tube of Tinactin (tolnaftate) or Lotrimin (clotrimazole).
  • Antibacterial ointments or creams: To help prevent a skin infection from a minor cut or scrape, pack a tube of Neosporin Ointment (polymyxin B, bacitracin, and neomycin).

How Do I Manage My Prescription Medications on a Trip?

Before you leave for your trip, see your doctor to get an ample supply of all your prescription medications. Also, talk to your doctor about your change in schedule and ask when to take medications if you are moving through different time zones.

If you are traveling to a country with malaria, talk with your doctor about getting a prescription for a medication to prevent malaria, such as Lariam (Mefloquine), Malarone (atovaquone, proguanil), or doxycycline (the CDC has a guide to each of the available medications, some of which are recommended for certain areas). If your destination is a country that puts you at high risk of diarrhea, ask your doctor for a prescription for an antibiotic, such as Cipro (ciprofloxacin).

Talk to your pharmacist about drug-food interactions. Since your diet may change during your trip, your pharmacist can advise you about foods that could affect your medications.

Pack your travel health kit, including your prescription medications, in your carry-on luggage. Make copies of your prescriptions and pack them with your medications. You should also leave a copy of your prescriptions at home with a friend or family member.

Make a list of your medications, including the generic names and brand names, and what conditions the medications treat. That will make it easier to find a replacement if you run out of or lose your medications.

Will I Have Problems Crossing Borders with My Medications?

If you use a controlled substance, such as a sedative, tranquilizer or narcotic pain medication, make sure you obtain a letter from your doctor, on the doctor’s stationery, stating why you need the drug. Without such a letter, these medications may not be allowed into another country or allowed back into the U.S. when you return.

Likewise, you should have a letter from your doctor if you take any medication by injection and you have to carry needles and syringes.

Make sure that all medications are labeled properly. The safest way to carry your medications is in the original bottles, which will also speed the process if your carry-on bags are inspected (this applies to vitamins and supplements as well). However, if you do not have enough space for the bottles in your carry-on, you can transfer them to small plastic bags. When you have your prescription filled, the pharmacy will give you a print-out that usually has a tear-off section on the top that has the same information as the label on your medication container. You can enclose this tear-off sheet in the plastic bag (note that the Transportation Security Administration—TSA— clarifies that although they do not require travelers to have medications in their original pharmacy-provided containers, "states have individual laws regarding the labeling of prescription medication with which passengers need to comply.").

You'll also want to make sure that the name on your prescriptions, pill bottles (or tear-off sheet if you're packing your medications in a bag or pill sorter) and ID or passport all match.

If you have a liquid medication, TSA doesn't require it to be less than 3.4 ounces (the rule that applies to most other liquids), but you do need to tell the TSA agent that you have medically necessary liquids in your bag when you start the screening process at the airport.

Even with all of that planning, it's important to also have a clear understanding of the laws and regulations in your destination country. In some cases, you might find that a particular destination's rules simply aren't compatible with a medication that you take, and you may want to consider a different destination instead. You can discuss the specifics with your doctor, your pharmacist, and the U.S. embassy in the country you're considering visiting. The embassy will be able to tell you whether a medication you take is banned in the country or only allowed in limited quantities.

Where Can I Get More Information Before I Leave on My Trip?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC maintains an excellent Travelers’ Health website that includes a wide range of information about travel issues related to health. One section of the site has an interactive map that provides access to health information for each country. And their traveling abroad with medicine page is a must-read if you're planning a trip outside the U.S. and will need to bring medication with you.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA): The TSA provides online information for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, and it explains the current requirements for how to go through airport security with medications.

U.S. Department of State: The State Department maintains a travel website that provides a profile about the current status of every country in the world. These profiles include information about health-related issues and often highlight issues with prescription medications.

Transportation Security Administration: TSA has a helpful page about disabilities and medical conditions. It includes a tool that allows you to select from among a range of common disabilities and medical conditions to see exactly what you need to know about the screening process and any steps you might want to take in advance to make it as smooth as possible.

A Tip from Dr. Mike:
Staying healthy on your trip can save you a lot of money. Out-of-pocket medical expenses in a foreign country can be enormous. Make sure to purchase travel insurance before you leave and pack your medications!

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