What to put in a travel first aid kit

Nobody wants to feel unwell when they’re travelling. Whether you’re going bundu bashing or being a city slicker, it’s best to pack a first aid kit of some kind. Not only will this mean you don’t have to spend valuable time trying to find something you need, many countries don’t have the same rules with regard to over-the-counter medication. You don’t need to pack an ambulance-worth supply of medicine but having the basics on hand is an absolute must.

Staying healthy when you travel starts BEFORE you leave by ensuring you get enough rest, start taking any immune-support supplements in advance, eating healthily, and drink plenty of water. You can also help prevent colds and flus by ensuring you wash your hands thoroughly, don’t touch your face or eat if you haven’t washed hands or at least used hand sanitiser (at least 60% alcohol) first. On the plane, wipe down everything you’re going to touch – tray table. seat belt, remote, TV screen, etc. and after you’ve gone to the lavatory (and try not to touch the door when you leave!).

Three questions to ask when planning your travel first-aid kit:

WHERE are you going? Find out what kinds of medicines are available over-the-counter there, how much they might cost, how easy they are to purchase, and what the risks are. How far from emergency medical services will you be? For example, if you’re going to the middle of nowhere, you’ll need to pack more than if you are going to London?

WHO is travelling with you? Are you packing just for yourself or for everyone in the group? Will there be children with you and how old are they? Does anyone have a pre-existing medical condition or chronic medication?

WHAT are you planning on doing and what are the related potential risks? For example: If you’ll be walking a lot, you might develop blisters and need lots of plasters but, if you’re planning a beach vacation, you’re more likely to need sunburn lotion.

Chronic medications

The first thing that should be on your list is chronic medication and an up-to-date prescription from your doctor. Always keep your important medication with you and not in your checked baggage. Many countries are sticky about larger quantities of scheduled medication so it’s best to keep them with their original packaging and the receipt from the pharmacy, along with the prescription so that inspectors can see that this is your medication and that it was purchased legally.

It is best to pack a more than you would normally need just in case your trip is delayed. For example, in 2010, one of our team members was stuck in Europe for an extra week after the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano eruption – an unusual event, to be sure, but these things can and do happen.

DIABETES: Travellers with diabetes that need insulin injections should carry a doctor’s letter. It may not be a requirement at all airports but it is best to have it in order to expedite things. Diabetics should not put insulin in checked baggage as the hold temperature is not stable enough and your insulin could be affected. Check out diabetes.org’s handy guide.


Many countries have restrictions on pain medication; products that we buy over the counter in South Africa may only be available on prescription in other countries. If you tend to suffer from aches and pains, it is best to take what you need with you. However, large quantities of opiate drugs like codeine may be restricted in some countries so, as with other scheduled drugs, always keep the medication in its original packaging and take along the receipt as proof that it was legally purchased. If you need a larger quantity, ask your doctor to write a doctor’s note explaining this.

We suggest taking something light like paracetamol or aspirin, and something stronger for serious pain. Self-heating stick-on patches are also useful as they take up little space and are great for stomach cramps and sore muscles.

Cuts and scrapes

  • Plasters in various sizes; include a few large ones to cover blistered heels.
  • Antiseptic wipes to clean cuts and scrapes.
  • Antiseptic cream or ointment

Immune support

Start taking immune-supportive supplements before you travel and continue while you’re away.

  • Echinacea. There are various brands and some are even available in tiny bottles that you can take onto the plane with you. During your flight, add some drops to your water bottle (once you’re through to the air side) so that every sip contains some immune-supporting echinacea.
  • Vitamin C. This vitamin is required for good immune function. In fact, there is evidence that people who are struggling with stress (and, let’s face it, as fun as travel is, it’s also pretty stressful) are less likely to get viral infections if they take extra vitamin C.
  • Zinc. This immune-supporting mineral can help to stave off a cold if you feel it creeping up on you, particularly if used in lozenge form.

If you find it challenging to remember your supplements, use an effervescent multi which contains immune boosters and vitamins. You can easily pop it into your breakfast water glass to get your morning ‘fix’.

Respiratory health

  • Nasal moisture. The air on planes is usually super dry which means that the mucus membranes in the nose cannot do their job at keeping germs out. Put a little sweet almond oil, natural balm, or even petroleum jelly inside your nostrils (if your hands aren’t clean, use an ear bud). This keeps your nasal mucus membranes moist and provides a barrier against germs.
  • Saline spray or a neti pot. This helps to flush out ‘gunk’ if you’re congested and could even help prevent a cold by keeping nasal mucosa moist.
  • Decongestant. People prone to sinus congestion may want to pack some decongestants, be it sprays or medications.
  • Throat lozenges. We love zinc lozenges as they’re natural and have been proven to help fight off colds.

Tummy troubles

There are few things as vexatious as coming down with a tummy bug on holiday. Hotel buffets, cruise ships, and hot countries tend to be the most common places where these nasties are picked up but, really, you can get them anywhere. Or perhaps you suffer from travel sickness and dread the flight or have a ferry trip coming up. The last thing you want to be doing when you’re feeling sick is going out to look for medicine.

There are also various natural remedies that work well for stomach problems if you prefer not to take drugs, such as ginger and chamomile.

Your pharmacist can assist you in selecting the best ones that are safe for you to take. Below are the most commonly used drugs (note that these are the active ingredient names and there are various brands manufacturing them under different names).

  • Nausea, dizziness, and vomiting: Cyclizinehydrochloride
  • Diarrhoea/runny tummy: Diphenoxylate hydrochloride + Atropine sulfate
  • Stomach cramps and pain: Hyoscine butylbromide
  • Dehydration: Rehydration powder. Note: use cooled boiled water or bottled water to mix these up, not tap water; even in countries with safe tap water, the fact that it is different to water you are used to could be enough to further irritate your tummy.

Natural remedies

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifoliaessential oil*: A fantastic disinfectant, it combats viruses, bacteria, and fungi. A drop placed on an insect bite does wonders for itching and pain, and it can also help combat a pesky pimple. For sore throats and gums, place 1 drop in a glass of water and gargle with it.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil*: Massage a drop into your temples for headaches, or over your throat area for a tight, sore throat. Put a drop onto your pillow at the hotel to help you sleep (pure lavender essential oil will not stain linens). If you have a bath in your room, put a drop or two into the bath water for that end-of-day muscle soreness. You could even use it as perfume in a pinch.

*A note on essential oils: only use 100% pure essential oils and not perfume oils. With the exception of the abovementioned, do not use essential oils neat on the skin. Do not get them in your eyes or on mucus membranes, and do not swallow them.

Ginger (Zingiber officinalis): A must-have for anyone suffering from nausea and motion sickness. It is safe during pregnancy. It also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-supportive properties. Take along some ginger lozenges or crystallised ginger to nibble if you’re feeling off colour, or some ginger tea bags.

Chamomile tea (Matricaria recutita): For anxiety, tension, stomach upsets, nausea, or trouble sleeping. It also contains antihistamine-like compounds and could help soothe hayfever. Pop a few wrapped teabags into your luggage.

Other bits ‘n’ bobs

  • Tweezers
  • Safety pins
  • Scissors
  • Antihistamine
  • Probiotic supplement

PS: don’t forget to put tweezers or scissors in checked-in luggage!

SAFETY NOTE The above is provided for information purposes only and does not replace the advice of your doctor. If you are pregnant, breast feeding, diabetic, on medication, or may be using anything for children, it is important to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements or medication.

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