Your Mobile Medicine Cabinet

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 6, 2005

While planning a vacation, your mind swims with images of tropical shores, ancient ruins, exotic markets -- not of you heaving over a foreign toilet or tossing, feverish, in an unfamiliar hotel bed. But sick happens, and while some travelers pooh-pooh the notion of packing a mobile medical kit, for many people just one ugly episode is enough to spur stashing a few supplies.

So what should you stash, anyway? During a recent Travel section online chat at , we asked readers what sorts of medication they pack when on a trip. Their answers were both enlightening and startling (see accompanying story). Then we went to more authoritative sources, including travel-health experts and travel writers, for ideas on what to stow in your little black bag.

Christie Reed heads the Travelers' Health team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which produces a publication called "The Yellow Book: Health Information for International Travel." Reed, a physician specializing in epidemiology, internal medicine and pediatrics and a world traveler, noted that her advice echoes that in the book's second chapter. You can access the entire text online at (click on "Travelers' Health," then on "References and Resources").

Reed recommends that those traveling to exotic foreign locales start with a visit to a health clinic at least four to six weeks before starting their trip; go to the CDC Web site (click on "Travelers' Health," then "Travel Medicine Clinics") to locate one near you. Travel health physicians can help pinpoint which, if any, vaccinations you'll need, depending on where you're headed. (Hence the long lead time: Some vaccines take several weeks, or second doses, to become fully effective.)

Clinic staff can also guide you in assembling a travel medicine kit appropriate to your destination; a trip to an underdeveloped country might warrant a bigger supply of an antidiarrheal such as Imodium than a trip to, say, London.

"Happy travelers think ahead," Reed said. Other suggestions:

Imodium tops Reed's (and just about everybody else's) list of must-pack travel medications, as unfamiliar food and water can trigger diarrhea -- if only for the first few days -- even though it leaves the locals unaffected. If you're embarking on a long-term adventure in an underdeveloped land, Reed says, you should consider bringing iodine tablets to purify water.

Pack any prescription drugs you regularly take in their original containers (with prescription labels) in your carry-on bag. Include extras in case your itinerary changes. It can't hurt to also carry a letter from your doctor saying what meds you take and why you take them, especially if you're taking injectable drugs and need to carry syringes onboard.

Get a doctor to prescribe a small supply of antibiotics (such as Cipro), just in case you contract a bacterial illness (including diarrhea); if you don't use them on this trip, Reed said, you can keep them in your kit for next time.

Include any over-the-counter drugs you typically use at home; you might not be able to find satisfactory equivalents where you're going. This is especially important if you're traveling with kids, Reed noted. "Bring all the basic things you'd want to have in the household if somebody had a problem in the middle of the night," she said. Make sure to pack a fluid and electrolyte replacer such as Pedialyte in case a child gets diarrhea, which can dehydrate little ones quickly.

When visiting an area where malaria or dengue occur, carry a mosquito repellent containing 30 to 50 percent DEET.

Infectious disease specialist Phyllis E. Kozarsky, travel health consultant to the CDC and a professor of medicine at Atlanta's Emory University, added to the list. She recommended taking ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain, headaches and mild fever; Dramamine for motion sickness; Benadryl for mild allergic reactions; a prescription sleep aid (such as Ambien) to prevent jet lag; and a decongestant.

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