Top fifteen items to have in your travel first aid kit

travel first aidEven if the worst travel-related malady you’ve suffered is a touch of turistas, it pays to pack at least a few first aid essentials in your luggage. If you carry nothing more than Band-Aids, moleskin, Neosporin, and Pepto-Bismol tablets, you’re set for minor emergencies that might otherwise derail a day of sightseeing.

If, however, you travel frequently/do adventure travel/spend time in developing nations, it pays to have a fully-loaded first aid kit. It’s no substitute should you get seriously ill or injured, but its contents can likely stabilize you until you’re able to get medical assistance

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a kit, either. You can pick one up for as little as $12 at REI, and augment it as needed. The most expensive thing is filling prescriptions for antibiotics (just in case) before you leave home. Cipro is really pricey, but broad-spectrum drugs like Doxycycline are very inexpensive.

Below, my picks for travel first aid kit essentials.

1. Band-aids/gauze pads/moleskin (for blisters)

2. Surgical tape
Use it to hold dressings in place, or to strap sprains or strains. A roll of this saved my ankle after a bad fall while backpacking.

[Photo credit: Flickr user ffi]travel first aid3. Sewing needle and safety pins
Sterilize and use to drain blisters, remove splinters, or make a makeshift sling.

4. Small mirror
Useful if you get something in your eye or have a facial injury. If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s an emergency kit essential for signaling should you get lost.

5. Prescription drugs
All of your regular prescriptions, as well as antibiotics or other meds prescribed by your doctor. Be sure to keep them in their original bottles, and carry copies of your prescriptions with you.

6. OTC drugs
Imodium, Pepto-Bismol tablets, antihistimines, Pepcid, ibuprofen, eye drops. For women: Uristat and an OTC or prescription for yeast infections. Comprehensivey, these meds cover a wide range of ailments, from food-borne illness to allergies, but reserve the Imodium only for emergency situations where you must travel (it’s a potent anti-diarrheal).

7. EpiPen
This isn’t just for those with known anaphylactic allergies. When you’re traveling abroad, you never know what might trigger a reaction; it’s also possible to develop a sensitivity to things you haven’t previously had a problem with.
travel first aid
8. Alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer
Sterilize your hands, implements like tweezers, even wounds, if necessary. Sanitizer is something you should be in the habit of carrying when you travel, regardless.

9. Tweezers and non-safety nail scissors
Remove splinters and insect stingers, cut surgical tape or bandages; there are endless uses for these two.

10. Thermometer
If you develop a sustained fever of 100.4 or higher, it’s time to seek medical attention.

11. Electrolyte powder packets and Emergen-C
If you’re suffering severe diarrhea or vomiting, it’s absolutely essential you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes. If you have access to Gatorade, you can down that, along with bottled (if necessary) water. I use Airborne and Emergen-C after long flights and at other times I need to keep my resistance up, or if my immune system is taxed.

12. Antibiotic ointment and hydrocortisone cream
Don’t underestimate the importance of these two, especially if you’re traveling in the tropics, where things tend to fester, or you have a coral cut, serious blister, sting, bite, or rash.
travel first aid
13. Matches
Sterilize needles or safety pins; matches are also an essential for wilderness emergency kits. Store in old film canister or Rx bottle to keep dry. You can additionally waterproof by painting the tips with nail polish.

14. Ziploc bags
You never know when these will come in handy. You can make an impromptu ice pack, store creams and ointment in them to prevent spillage, use them as an extra layer to keep meds dry, etc..

15. Mini first aid or wilderness safety manual
If you’re traveling long-term or spending lots of time outdoors, you’ll find this useful at some point. Many first aid kits come with one.

[Photo credits: knee, Flickr user Sukianto; Pepto-Bismol, Flickr user chris.corwin;dressing, Flickr user tiny_packages]

Ask Gadling: You develop a serious illness while traveling

serious illness while travelingThe very thought of acquiring a serious illness or injury while traveling strikes fear into the hearts of even the most stalwart adventurers. Speaking from personal experience, it’s terrifying to find yourself alone (or not) in dodgy accomodations, in a remote area of a developing country, with a raging fever and/or an uncontrollable case of the runs or other unsavory symptoms. Which isn’t to say the same ailments suffered in the comfort of a five-star hotel in Paris are a picnic, either. Any way you slice it, getting sick in a foreign country sucks.

And sometimes, despite taking precautions, you fall ill anyway, as I can attest. It can be a matter of circumstance (That water my guide “boiled” in a bamboo culm on a Thai Hilltribe trek? Yeah, I pretty much saw the resulting case of dysentery coming), or just bad luck. I’ve been on my own during most of my unfortunate on-the-road maladies. Between my experiences and those of fellow travelers, I’ve accumulated some wisdom over the years for dealing with sudden-onset illness in less-than-ideal circumstances.

For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to include injuries, pre-existing conditions, or focus on food poisoning, which was well-covered in a previous Ask Gadling post by Melanie. I also want to stress that we’re not medical professionals here at Gadling, myself included. For the technical stuff, I turned to Dr. John Szumowski, Clinical Fellow of University of Washington Medical Center’s Division of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

After the jump, tips on prevention, what to do when illness strikes, and how to get yourself home in the event of a full-blown medical emergency.

[Photo credit: Flickr user MoHotta18]

serious illness while traveling

Before you leave home

Hit the internet
Do a bit of research on emergency medical options for a worst-case scenario. The U.S. Department of State produces a list of American doctors and hospitals in foreign countries.

If you have specific questions (about, say, where to find the best dentists in Europe), Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree travel forum can be a useful place to get ideas (please do additional research before following any advice). Take the diagnostic-related questions directed to forum members with a heaping grain of salt, and save them for your doctor.

Get vaccinated
Check the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website to see what, if any, vaccinations you need before your trip. You can also get updates on things like outbreaks of cholera or bird flu. Be sure you allow ample time before your trip for the protective effects of vaccines to establish themselves. Dr. Szumowski also recommends the CDC’s “Survival Guide to Safe and Healthy Travel” webpage.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Keep an immunization card on you (some countries require proof of certain vaccinations) as well as an online record, like Google Health.

All travelers should get flu and tetanus shots. If you’re a frequent world traveler, get vaccinated for hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Depending upon where you’re traveling, you may require a Yellow Fever or Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, or malaria prophylaxis.

I used to think a rabies vaccination was overkill until I saw a fellow traveler get seriously nipped by a puppy we were playing with in a remote village near the Myanmar border. The deathly silence that followed was sufficient motivation. Adds Dr. Szumowski, “It’s still important to remember that excellent wound-care and post-bite medical evaluation are necessary, even if a person has had prior rabies pre-exposure vaccination.” The International Society of Travel Medicine has a list of global travel medicine clinics.

I also carry an EpiPen, because you never know what could trigger anaphylaxis while you’re abroad. It also bears mentioning that you can develop a life-threatening allergy to something previously benign. A chef I know went into anaphylactic shock after tasting one of his dishes containing taro root, even though he’d been cooking with it for over 20 years.

If you get sick

Stay calm, and assess your symtoms
It’s easy to get carried away and assume the worst, but odds are your sudden fever isn’t malaria.
serious illness while traveling
Try to identify the source of infection or illness

Know when to seek professional medical assistance
In general, says Dr. Szumowski, some symptoms or exposures that should prompt “expeditious” medical evaluation include:

  • high fevers (over 101ºF, especially if sustained or accompanied by shaking or drenching sweats)
  • bloody diarrhea
  • inability to keep food or liquids down in situation of significant vomiting or diarrhea
  • confusion or severe headache
  • severe cough, especially if accompanied by shortness of breath
  • animal bite or other animal-related attack

Tips for self-care

Stay hydrated
If you’re vomiting or have diarrhea, stay hydrated with (purified/bottled water), and Gatorade or other electrolyte beverages. If you absolutely have to travel, take Imodium as an anti-diarrheal.

Eat bland foods
Remember the BRAT diet for gastrointestinal upset: rice, bananas, applesauce, and toast.
serious illness while traveling
Control your fever
To lower a high fever, take the recommended dosages of acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).

Wear ID
Wear a medical alert bracelet for serious conditions, allergies, etc., Write down your condition in your destination country’s language in both your phrasebook, and place a card in your passport.

Emergency Measures

Know when to self-diagnose
Sometimes, you find yourself in a position where you have no other option. That said, this is something you want to avoid for obvious reasons. Says Dr. Szumowski, “Self-diagnosis and treatment can be appropriate for less serious conditions such as traveler’s diarrhea, but it is important not to delay evaluation by a medical professional for more serious illness [see warning signs above]. If someone chooses to self-treat, it’s important to be aware of potential for counterfeit medications locally.”

What if the only available hospital/clinic/doctor’s office is seriously sketchy?
If you’re in a situation where the medical facility is primitive/lacking in sanitation, you’ve got a tough call on your hands.
serious illness while traveling
I posed this question to Dr. Szumowski. He says, “It depends on the acuity and seriousness of the condition. In general, evaluation and treatment in a facility with adequately-trained staff and more comprehensive resources is preferable whenever possible–this may mean seeking evaluation in the capital, at a private hospital, or even returning home. Aside from limited diagnostics and medications, smaller/less-resourced facilities may have inadequate sanitary practices (e.g. reuse of equipment) and screening of blood products, raising the risk of contracting pathogens such as hepatitis C or HIV. Therefore, having evacuation insurance is advisable, especially for extended travels in the developing world.”

In other words, you may be shit out of luck. But this is why you’re reading this article–so you can be prepared for all kinds of situations! Read on.

OTC antibiotics
In many countries, you can buy OTC antibiotics, and indeed, this may be your only option, but heed Dr. Szumowski’s warning, above. Caveat emptor.

If you need to be evacuated, the U.S. government offers financial assistance and/or repatriation loans. The American Citizens Service and Crisis Management (ACS) is linked to U.S. embassies and consulates all over the globe. It’s a good idea to enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (formerly known as “Traveler Registration)” if you’re traveling for a long period of time, to a high-risk region, or doing any extreme adventure activities.

Travel prepared

Get antibiotic prescriptions (and carry copies with you) from your primary care doctor or internist, or visit a travel medicine clinic, and pack them in you travel first-aid kit (You don’t have one? REI has some great options). Some people also carry sterile latex gloves and hypodermic needles with them. If you’re diabetic or have another condition that requires injections, this makes sense, provided you have a note from your medical provider. For everyone else, this is a personal choice that comes down to, “How comfortable are you with the knowledge that you’re carrying drug paraphernalia?” If you backpack, travel in places with notoriously corrupt law enforcement, or countries like, say, Malaysia, you may want to hedge your bets.
serious illness while traveling
Email yourself and family or a trusted friend copies of medical insurance, itinerary, and a list of medications, and doctors.

Consider traveler’s insurance.

If the worst happens

In the highly unlikely event you do come home with a mystery disease that isn’t responding to medical treatment, get to a specialist, asap. Depending upon where you’ve been, this may be an infectious disease or tropical medicine doctor, a dermatologist or rheumatologist who specializes in tropical medicine, etc.. You may need to travel–out of state–to find the right specialist. Find someone who has first-hand experience traveling/training or practicing in developing countries, and in diagnosing diseases not found in the U.S.. It may even be best to try and seek medical treatment in the country where you became ill (even if that means a return trip).

Unfortunately, I can speak with authority this subject, because I’m in my 22nd month of diagnostics following a trip to South America. If you do find yourself harboring a travel-related (or not) disease that defies diagnosis, you must be your own advocate. No one is more invested in your health than you are, and doctors are human. They may make mistakes, despite their best intentions. Seek not just a second, but a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities.

And finally, don’t let anything in this article scare you and put you off travel. Odds are, you’ll come home with nothing more than great memories, and the eagerness to plan your next trip. I know I can’t wait.

[Photo credits: vaccination, Flickr user alvi2047; mosquito, Flickr user tonrulkens; toast, Flickr user snowriderguy; farmacia, Flickr user ibirque; drugs, Flickr user cavale]

Ask Gadling: Kids, allergies and travel

Kids and allergies.Traveling into unknown territory can bring up a lot of questions. We’re here to help. This week’s question comes from Sarah in Illinois, whose son has allergies that make it difficult to travel.


“My husband and I love to travel, and our son is just getting old enough to withstand long rides on the airplane. Unfortunately, he has a fatal allergy to nuts. We want to expose him to different cultures and instill our love of travel in him, but we don’t want to be irresponsible parents and are afraid to take him anywhere we don’t speak the language. Help!”

Gadling: You certainly don’t sound like irresponsible parents to me. Don’t worry, you can travel. I’m allergic to nuts myself, and it’s never stopped me. Allergies are becoming more and more prevalent these days, and that’s actually good news for you and me, because across the world, people are starting to understand. Obviously, you should consult with your pediatrician to ensure you cover all the medical bases, and here are four things you can do to help keep your son safe while you travel wherever your wanderlust takes you.

1. Get allergy language cards. Visit SelectWisely.com to purchase strongly-worded cards that explain your son’s allergy in any language and with pictures. There are language barrier issues that could confuse the situation; learning “nuts” in every language won’t necessarily be good enough. In some languages, a nut is considered a fruit, so you’d be saying your son is allergic to fruit, and they might not think twice about serving him chocolate with a little hazelnut or something cooked in peanut oil and so on. Get these cards to avoid confusion and present them at every hotel and restaurant you visit.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

2. Bring snacks. There is a danger, especially if you’re visiting a second or third world location, of there not being enough good food for your son. Nuts are staples in the diets of many countries, and the less variety of food there is available, the more miserable your son may end up being. Pack some canned food (and a can opener!), beef jerky, fruit rollups, any snacks that you know he can eat. You don’t want to be up a river on a daytrip in Africa with nothing around but groundnuts available for hours.

3. Travel with an EpiPen. This is a no-brainer. You probably already carry one of these for his safety, but in case you don’t, it’s an auto-injection device which your doctor can prescribe. If, despite your best efforts, your son starts to show signs of anaphylactic shock, a quick jab with the EpiPen could save his life by buying him time to get to an emergency room.

4. Consider a cruise. Particularly if you are hoping to travel to Asia, where so many of the sauces use nuts, consider taking a cruise. That way, you can inform the ship of your son’s allergy and eat exclusively onboard if need be.

Good luck and safe travels to you!

Air Canada ordered to offer a no-nuts option for allergic flyers

The Canadian Transportation Authority has ruled that Air Canada needs to create a “nut-free” zone on all of its flights, to accommodate those passengers who are severely allergic to nuts. The order came after two passengers complained that the airline had failed to properly accommodate their allergies, which the CTA ruled should be treated as a disability.

According to Toronto’s National Post, the airline has “30 days to come up with a plan to create a ‘buffer zone’” to separate those who have nut allergies from the rest of the passengers, who may receive a snack with nuts in it.

I feel for people who have severe nut allergies, really I do. The constant worry that something you eat may contain nuts, the fear that someone may eat a nut near you and cause you to have a bad reaction, the pain of not being able to enjoy all the delicious nuts out there in the world. I mean, have you ever had a macadamia nut? Those things are pure heaven.

Should passengers be denied the right to eat something delicious because there is a chance that another person on the plane might be allergic to it? It’s tempting to say no, but really, when you think about it, is offering a peanut-based snack so important that it is worth risking someone’s life? Some allergies really are that severe and there are plenty of other snack options out there that don’t involve nuts. I actually have to side with one of the complaining passengers on this one – it just makes more sense to get ride of nut-based snacks altogether.

[via USA Today]

Passengers protest peanuts, prefer pretzels

Blame Northwest. Or, blame the merger with Delta. Either way, peanuts are back, and some passengers are pissed.

On February 1, Northwest began dishing out peanuts on flights, which Delta has been doing since dirt was new. The timing isn’t all that hot, given a national salmonella outbreak involving Peanut Corporation of America. And then there are the people who are allergic to peanuts … they’re also far from thrilled with the change.

A commenter on the Star Tribune website (local to Minneapolis, where NWA is headquartered) wrote, “Northwest is really out of touch with its customers and the reality of allergies to peanuts.” Another chimed in, “What’s wrong with pretzels?”

Indeed, what is wrong with pretzels?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3 million people in the United States are allergic to peanuts (or tree nuts). Food allergies cause 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths every year. On its own, this sucks. On a plane, it’s worse than sitting next to a fat person.

Delta is doing what it can to prevent an in-flight disaster, creating a “buffer zone” of three rows in front of and behind a peanut-allergic person’s seat. And, the airline is advising “cabin service to board additional nonpeanut snacks.” So, flight attendants who are busy with such trivial matters as keeping order on the plane and tending to broader safety issues will have to keep track of the “peanut zone,” as well.

[Via CNN]

What strange things have been found on planes?