7 Essential OTC Medications to Carry When Traveling

I am a big fan of natural medicine and have more than once found that a natural form of medicine has healed me permanently where the traditional Western doctors could only dull my pain. That being said, everything has its place and when you are traveling, you want to get out and see things, not stay stuck in a hotel room or hostel, miserable. In these situations, an over-the-counter (OTC) pill might just be the answer to giving you enough relief to get out there and take that picture of you holding the Eiffel Tower between your thumb and forefinger. I do not have a strong stomach and Sara is allergic to everything, so, over time, we have developed our little kit of OTC medication that we do not leave home without on long trips overseas. Please keep in mind that we are not doctors, so please consult your own physician before embarking on your dream trip. We usually like to bring along our own meds because finding its comparable version in a foreign language, or explaining your symptoms to a pharmacist who does not speak your language is sometimes challenging. Below is a list of the best OTC medications that we take with us without fail. Obviously, if you have a specific medical condition or problem, you should take any normal medication with you that you might otherwise need at home, such as allergy or asthma drugs. 1. Ibuprofen. Otherwise known as Advil or Motrin. This is my number one go to medication for any kind of pain. When I was in the Navy, this was what they gave for everything under the sun, from toothache to herpes (just kidding about that last one, no, Mom, I don't have herpes). The reason that I choose ibuprofen over acetaminophen is that you can actually poison yourself very easily by taking too much acetaminophen. It is a common pain reliever in hospitals, and if you have already loaded up on it, have to go to the hospital, and then cannot speak the language, you might get more, which could kill you. This is possible with any medication including ibuprofen, but it is actually more likely with acetaminophen. 2. Phillips Milk of Magnesia (in tablet form). As I mentioned before, I tend to have a weak stomach, and one of my problems when traveling is to become stopped up. My first visit to a hospital overseas (Taiwan) involved this problem. To head off this situation in subsequent trips, I have tried many types of laxatives over the years and have found Phillips Milk of Magnesia to be the most mild and highly recommend it. 3. Imodium. The other end of the spectrum and a problem I am also very familiar with, although I do not want to go into these multiple events at all (Egypt, Bali, Huangshan, etc.), involves not being stopped up enough. Hands down, Imodium is the best choice for this and I absolutely do not travel without it. 4. Benadryl. Even if you do not have any known allergies, I would recommend bringing along a few tablets or capsules of Benadryl. A few years ago, Sara was having lunch at a local sushi restaurant and suddenly developed a splitting headache. She was able to drive herself home, but determined that she was having an allergic reaction to something. She took some Benadryl and was eventually ok, but after some extensive testing, the doctor found she was allergic to tuna. She had eaten tuna hundreds of times before. He also said that if she had not taken the Benadryl, she might have died. She now carries an Epipen with her everywhere, but the Benadryl is what made the initial difference. 5. Sudafed (single-action pseudoephedrine). This can be a lifesaver for the sinus headache. However, it can also be useful if you are going to be flying or SCUBA diving and your nasal passages are stopped up. The pressure changes associated with both flying and diving can play havoc with your sinuses and Sudafed usually can bring fairly quick relief. This can be the difference between actually diving and sitting on the boat helping people on and off with their gear. 6. Pepcid AC. Another one for the weak stomach. Although, I personally rarely use this, Sara swears by it as she gets extremely painful gastritus from time to time. This will bring relief within 10 or 15 minutes and can prevent a trip to the hospital. With all of the exotic foods out there that your body is not used to, it is better to be safe than sorry. 7. A general daytime and nighttime multi-symptom cold medicine (combo pack). Although it is rarely good to take too much medicine, or medicine for symptoms that you might not have, it is difficult to pack for every instance. In this case, I like to carry along medicine that is designed to help with virtually anything. I would try to steer clear of anything with acetaminophen in it for reasons listed earlier, but something is often better than nothing. For this, go with something you have tried before and has worked for you. The best product I have found is a version of Robitussin from Taiwan, and we try to stock up whenever we visit. As I said before, I really do try to not use medicine if I can avoid it. However, when traveling, I really do not want to be knocked out by a simple head or stomach ache and I don't always trust the ability to find the correct medicine when I cannot read the packaging. If you are ok with taking OTC medicine for your aches and pains, these are the ones that we recommend. We would love it if you would share your personal recommendations/experiences in the comments. Image provided by e-MagineArt.com.
  • Stephanie

    I’d add an anti-itch cream to the list. I was eaten alive by mosquitos on a bike ride through a forest in Germany, my arms and legs were COVERED…by the time I got to Italy a few days later I looked like I had a horrible disease. In order for the Italian pharmacist to understand what I needed, I had to use pantomime, sound effects and draw pictures of mosquitos…all with my brother doubled over laughing hysterically!

    • Sara wanted me to include Hydrocortisone cream on the list, but I did not think it was that common. I guess I was wrong. Thanks for the input!


  • Laura

    As a pharmacist, I have to commend you on your presentation of the benefits and drawbacks of each item. Nicely done. I would recommend the same things to most anyone, and would also add the hydrocortisone cream – more commonly needed than you would expect. If a person is traveling on a trip that would include doing work where injuries are possible (i.e. a mission/relief trip), an antibiotic cream wouldn’t be amiss either.

    • Thanks, Laura. It seems Sara is right again! We should have put the hydrocortisone on there. The antibiotic cream is a great suggestion and we will pack that from now on. Especially since on our next trip we will have our four-year-old along.

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