When packing for foreign travel, don't forget to take along a first-aid kit. Planning well will help keep the items to a minimum so that packing is light and easy.
Unless travel is to large cities frequented by American tourists, it's usually a mistake to depend on buying on arrival whatever medical supplies may be needed for the trip. This is especially true for prescription drugs. One reason is that drugs may have a different trade name in each country visited, and it will be difficult to be certain that the drug being purchased is the correct one. Even if that problem is solved, the quality of the drug may not be the same as it is in the United States.
What follows is a list of first-aid items recommended by medical experts and seasoned international travelers. Certain standard items obviously apply to everybody, but travelers can choose from the list according to destination and personal needs.
Those who currently are on prescription drugs should hand-carry those drugs separate from checked luggage. This is particularly important for people suffering from medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, for which regular medication is essential. Copies of health records and the generic names of prescription drugs (brand names vary from country to country) are also important to have. Also of use may be copies of your doctor's telephone number, spare eyeglasses and their refraction prescription, sunscreen and lip balm, sunglasses and contact lens cleaner.
For minor injury and illness, don't forget Band-Aids, small adhesive gauze pads, adhesive tape, scissors, tweezers, cotton balls and a thermometer.
Useful over-the-counter drugs include iodine, eye drops, an antihistamine, aspirin or acetaminophen, antibiotic ointment, nasal spray, a small bottle of disinfectant such as hydrogen peroxide, an antacid, motion sickness pills and a laxative.
Other products that might be useful are remedies for athlete's foot and dental first-aid medications. Foot products that contain miconazole, tolnaftate and undecyclenic acid are good for common foot fungal infections as well as for prickly heat, diaper rash and jock itch.
Canker sores, cold sores and inflamed gums are irritations that may require some medication to ease discomfort. A small jar of petroleum jelly will help soothe the pain of canker sores, as well as cold sores. Rinsing the mouth with bicarbonate of soda and warm water, or applying a medication called Orabase with benzocaine after using dental floss is helpful for inflamed gums.
When the itinerary includes travel to developing countries where hepatitis B and AIDS can be acquired from improperly sterilized needles used for injections or blood transfusions, sterile needles and syringes can be a godsend should an emergency occur. It may be a good idea to get a letter from your doctor to show customs officers, especially if your kit contains an array of suspicious-looking pills.
Your physician can suggest whether to include an antibiotic in the kit and, if so, which one. Much depends on the part of the world being explored. In developing countries, the most useful antibiotic probably is one to treat intestinal infections, but for children or for people prone to such problems as bladder or ear infections, other types of drugs may be more fitting. If packing an antibiotic, discuss with the doctor the conditions under which the drug should be started and how long it should be continued.
For travel to the tropics, a special set of items may be added. This includes skin antifungals, antimalarial drugs and oral rehydration salts. The salts are for use in treating diarrhea to prevent the dehydration that accompanies the illness. Whether to take antibiotics prophylactically to prevent diarrhea is a matter to be discussed with a doctor. Negative considerations are antibiotic side effects and the possibility of producing body resistance to a drug that may be more useful as treatment, should an infection occur.
Water purification tablets or a small bottle of iodine or chlorine can be worth their weight in gold if there are no bottled beverages around. Devices that quickly purify the water are also now on the market, but the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control says the oldest and best method is boiling the water for 10 minutes. Next best are halogen tablets available in sporting goods stores.
If a commercial purifier is purchased, a careful check should be made to see whether it eliminates infectious organisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasite cysts that are most likely to contaminate water. To call a device a water purifier, the manufacturer must meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for eliminating those types of organisms.
While mosquito net and repellent may not technically be first-aid, they can be important for comfort and physical well-being, should the journey pass into mosquito-infested tropical areas. Ditto for insect repellents. The repellents most highly recommended by public health officials are those that contain an agent called DEET.
Some travel health books list the trade names in other countries of commonly used U.S. prescription drugs. One such book is the paperback "Travel Healthy" by Dr. Harold Silverman (Avon Books, $3.50). Two other valuable sources of information are the "International Travel Health Guide" by Dr. Stuart R. Rose (Travel Medicine Inc. of Northampton, Mass., $12.95) and "Traveler's Medical Companion" by Eden Graber and Paula M. Siegel (Fielding Travel Books, $15.95).