Medication Advice for Travelers


Going on a vacation can be a pleasant experience. For people with health problems or those traveling to developing countries, however, it can seem downright dangerous. This article will provide advice and answer common questions regarding over-the-counter (OTC) medications and first-aid supplies to take along on a vacation.

Before You Leave

Planning ahead is important for patients with long-term medical conditions. A thorough checkup by your physician is recommended to make sure that you are healthy enough for travel. Also, ask your doctor to authorize enough medication refills for your trip. If you are traveling abroad, a letter from your doctor listing your medications and doses may help you get through customs and security checks. You should also pack a brief summary of your medical history (medical conditions, allergies) and your medical insurance card.

If you are traveling abroad, especially to developing countries, ask your doctor whether any vaccinations might be needed to protect against infectious diseases common in your vacation destination. In addition, ask your doctor about your risk of acquiring tuberculosis, hepatitis, or traveler?s diarrhea. You may also visit, or contact your local health department or one of the resources listed at the end of this guide.

What to Pack

Sunscreen is necessary for fair-skinned individuals and children. The SPF number tells you how much protection a particular sunscreen provides against the sun?s damaging rays. It is important to apply sunscreen at least 30-60 minutes before going outside and to reapply it after swimming or sweating heavily.

An insect repellent is also important if you plan on being outdoors. Many types of insect repellents are available. It is a good idea to use a product containing the ingredient deet (10% to 35% is recommended). Remember to avoid touching your eyes and mouth, and do not apply the product over any open cuts or irritated skin. Do not use insect repellent containing deet on children under 8 years old. For infants and children, use Avon?s Skin-So-Soft instead.

Other items to pack include general first-aid supplies. First-aid kits usually include various-sized bandages, a thermometer, and a topical disinfectant for minor cuts or scrapes. If space permits, you may consider packing some bottled water to avoid traveler?s diarrhea.

OTC Medicines for Specific Travel Conditions

Pain and Fever

Tylenol is recommended for minor aches, pain, and fever. Fever that lasts for more than 48 hours or is accompanied by a sore throat, skin rash, persistent diarrhea, or a stiff neck requires prompt medical attention. Ibuprofen and aspirin can also be used for pain.

Poison Ivy, Insect Bites, and Rashes

Insect bites, stings, and skin rashes caused by poison ivy or related plants usually do not need medical attention. These conditions can be treated with topical hydrocortisone 1% cream, which is available without a prescription. But if you travel to a high-risk area for diseases such as malaria or Lyme disease, you should see a doctor or pharmacist if you get numerous insect bites, if a rash or irritation develops near the bite, or if you develop any new symptoms. If you have a history of serious reactions to bee stings or other insect bites, make sure that you have immediate access to emergency epinephrine (Epi-Pen).

Traveler?s Diarrhea

Consuming contaminated food or drinks causes traveler?s diarrhea. It is more common in certain parts of the world. To prevent traveler?s diarrhea:

  • Do not buy food from street vendors
  • Avoid raw or uncooked meat and fish
  • Drink only boiled or bottled water, if possible

Depending on your travel destination, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to take in case you develop this condition. The symptoms can be treated with non-prescription drugs, such as Imodium or Pepto-Bismol. For persistent diarrhea that lasts longer than 48 hours or that does not get better with treatment, you should seek medical attention. Nonprescription drugs for diarrhea should generally be avoided if you have a high fever or notice blood in the stool, unless directed by a physician.

Motion Sickness

OTC medications for motion sickness include Dramamine, Antivert, Bonine, and Bucladin. These medications all have side effects, such as drowsiness, dry mouth, blurry vision, and urinary retention. These medications need to be taken at least 1 hour before travel to be effective.

More Health Information for Travelers

  • Travelers should check with the US embassy or consulate in the destination country. The embassies often have lists of English-speaking physicians and information on available vaccines.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC): 800-311-3435) or CDC Travelers? Health Hotline (877-FYI-TRIP); or fax-on-demand 888-232-3299; or on the Internet:
  • International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers: 716-754-4883; or on the Internet:
  • International Society of Travel Medicine: 770-736-7060; or on the Internet:
  • Medicine Planet:
  • Travel Health Online:
  • Travel Medicine, Inc:

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