Dr. Erik McLaughlin
Backpackers need to be carrying some travel medications in their first aid kit for their travels.
Be careful asking for advice regarding your travel first aid kit from too many health care professionals or you will end up carrying “a portable emergency room” that requires its own seat on the plane and is filled with must-have items you’ll likely never use or things that require special training!
A good approach is to try and anticipate the medical issues you’ll likely run into, on your travels. Have some medications ready for common ailments like diarrhea, sore muscles, fevers, urinary tract infections, fungal infections, cuts and scrapes and respiratory infections.
Potential Medications to Include in Your Travel First Aid Kit
Most all travelers want to be self-sufficient and be prepared. For many, this means carrying antibiotics in their first aid kits to take when they spot signs of infection. The thing to remember is that antibiotics only work on bacteria and have no effect on viruses. Differentiating between viral and bacterial infection is tough, even for doctors.
- Amoxicillin: A very commonly used antibiotic, worldwide. Treats infections of the ears, mouth, urinary tract and pneumonia. A derivative of penicillin, it should not be used by those with penicillin allergy.
- Penicillin: An older medicine with less potency than amoxicillin but very good for throat infections, not for those with penicillin allergies.
- Erythromycin: A great alternative for those with allergy to penicillin and looking to treat similar infections as amoxicillin. Has some effect on diarrheal illness, as well
- Metronidazole: A borad spectrum antibiotic that works great for vaginal infections and parasitic problems such as amoebas, giardia and protozoa. Causes a bad reaction if you drink alcohol while taking this medicine.
- Tmp/Smx: A common antibiotic with broad spectrum activity. Very good for treating urinary tract infections and diarrhea. Contains sulfa and should not be used by those with allergies to sulfa containing medicine.
- Ciprofloxacin: A great antibiotic for treatment of travelers diarrhea, provided it is of a bacterial cause. “Cipro” also has some activity on bacteria that can cause pneumonia.
- Doxycycline: An old antibiotic that is very broad spectrum. Has many uses including pneumonia and antimalarial effects.
- Chloramphenicol: An antibiotic that is not seen too much in developed nations due to safer alternatives with less side effects being available. Use this under the consult of a health care professional.
- Gentamycin: My favorite antibiotic for conjunctivitis (pink eye) with great broad spectrum coverage for eye infections.
- Mupirocin: Broad spectrum cream used to treat superficial skin infections, cuts and scrapes.
Pain Killers for Your First Aid Kit
- Acetaminophen (paracetamol): A very effective and in-expensive pain reliever that also breaks fevers. A safe drug if taken at instructed doses, an overdose can cause significant liver problems.
- Ibuprofen: Part of the family of drugs called NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), ibuprofen works great for muscle aches and pain, inflammation. This may cause stomach irritation and should not be taken in high doses for extended period of time.
- Aspirin: Cheap and effective pain reliever that should be taken with food. Aspirin has anti-inflammatory activity and works great for muscle and joint pain. Aspirin can interfere with clotting and increase bleeding time, so do not use if there are bleeding complications. Do not use for children under 12 years.
For use in allergic reactions ranging from seasonal allergies (pollen), pet and animal allergies and even life threatening food allergies and anaphylaxis. All travelers should carry an antihistamine with them at all times.
- Loratidine: Less sedating medicine that is available over the counter as Claritin.
- Diphenhydramine: Known as Benadryl, this is over the counter, as well. Overall, more sedative effects but also stronger activity.
- Scopalamine: Often used in trans-dermal patch form, this is a potent medicine that effects many systems in your body. Speak with your doctor before taking this medicine and if it is right for you. Overall, a very effective way to prevent motion sickness.
- Meclazine: Known as Antivert, this is an alternative to scopolamine, taken as a tablet. This medicine works in a different method that scopolamine and generally has less side effects.
- Miconazole cream: A common and over the counter available medicine for treatment of fungal skin and vaginal infections. Anti-fungals are very useful, especially in tropic climates.
The best prevention for altitude sickness is a slow and gradual ascent. If your plans do not allow for this or your transportation suddenly finds you at high altitude (plane or car), a prophylactic medicine might be a good idea. The best treatment for altitude illness is a quick descent to lower levels.
- Dexamethasone: A powerful steroid used to treat a confirmed case of altitude sickness or for those who cannot use acetazolamide as a preventative medicine
- Acetazolamide: A medicine taken twice per day to prevent altitude sickness. Ideal for those whose plans require rapid ascent to altitude and little time to acclimatize.
Nausea / Diarrhea
- Loperamide: known as Immodium, this is a medicine that slows down bowel movement. Good for bus rides and times when you do not have regular bathroom access. Use this medicine with caution as you can potentially trap infection bacteria in your bowels, giving the bacteria more time to do damage. A good rule of thumb is to avoid loperamide if there is blood in the stool.
- Metoclopramide: A cheap-and-effective antiemetic that keeps you from feeling nauseous. This should be used with some caution as some of the side effects, though rare, can be severe. Speak with your doctor about using this medicine.
Teeth / Oral
- Cavit: A dental paste that can be bought in most pharmacies. Cavit is great for repair of damaged of missing fillings, tooth chips and dental work. Remember that this is a temporary solution and you should seek dental help, the cavit will just keep you more comfortable while you look.
Inhaled Nasal Steroids, a spray that goes up the nostrils, work great for symptoms of allergies and respiratory infections that cause runny or blocked noses. Steroids defeat inflammation and have limited effects elsewhere in the body if taken nasally. They also help blocked ears while flying.
- Pseudoephedrine: Known as Sudafed, this medicine helps relieve nasal congestion and blocked noses. Also good to use before flying to help with ear pressure and pop.
Choose what you need from these travel medications to help stay healthy on the road!
About the Author:
Erik McLaughlin, M.D. is dedicated to helping travelers around the world stay healthy.