How to Travel With Medications

Stay Healthy and Save Money


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. With the U.S. dollar low compared to some currencies, 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, have your doctor write a prescription for a medication to prevent malaria, such as Lariam (Mefloquine), Malarone (atovaquone, proguanil), or doxycycline. 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. If you run out of or lose your medications, you can find a replacement more easily.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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