Medically Approved

10 tips that take the stress out of traveling with medications

5 minute read
Photo of a person packing for a story about traveling with medication

A doctor and pharmacist share their best advice for planning — and packing — medication for your next trip.

Nancy Fitzgerald

By Nancy Fitzgerald

Packing your bags? No matter the destination, from a week at the beach to a hike through the backcountry, we’re all eager to get out on the road again. But remember: Your health conditions will be going along for the ride. For worry-free travel, don’t forget to pack your medication.

“The key is to be prepared,” says Michael Zimring, MD, director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He’s also the author of Healthy Travel: Don’t Travel Without It! “A month or so before your trip, sit down with your doctor and go over everything you’ll need to take with you to stay healthy on vacation.”

Your best bet: See a travel medicine specialist, especially if you’re heading off the beaten path (find a travel doctor near you). “A travel doctor can look at your health profile in light of the risks you might face at your destination,” says Dr. Zimring. “Your family doctor should be able to help, too.” The important thing: a thorough review of your medications.

Everything depends on your destination, of course. If you’re trekking through the wilderness or visiting an undeveloped country, you may need certain immunizations first. If you plan on sailing, a remedy for seasickness may be on the ticket. But no matter where you’re going, plan ahead to be sure you’ve got all the medications you need.

We asked Dr. Zimring and Courtney Doyle-Campbell, PharmD, a professor at the Western New England College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, to share their best advice.

1. Stock up. Make sure you have an adequate supply of all your medications. “The rule of thumb is to take enough for twice as long as you’ll be away,” says Dr. Zimring. You could experience travel delays — or you could be having such a great time that you decide to stay longer. (Get your medications delivered to your door from Optum Store.)

2. Carry on. Your luggage can get lost, so be sure to tuck at least a few days’ worth of your medications into your carry-on bag.

3. Be original. Bring prescription medications in their original packaging. Make sure the labels show the name of the medication, dose, prescribing doctor, pharmacy and your name as it appears on your passport. Prefer using a pill organizer box? Take it along and fill it up when you get to your destination.

4. Make a list. Write down the name of each of your medications, the doctor’s name, the dose, pharmacy contact information and the prescription or refill numbers. Give a backup copy of your list to a friend or relative at home or email it to yourself so you can access it from anywhere.

5. Bring a note. If any of your medications contains a controlled substance — such as cough medicine with codeine — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you bring along a note from your doctor. It should describe your condition and spell out all the details of the prescription, including the reason the medication was prescribed.

6. Know the laws. Traveling abroad? Make sure all your medications are legal at your destination. Laws vary from country to country, and a medication that’s legal in the U.S. might land you in hot water (or even in jail) somewhere else. Contact the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you’re visiting. If your prescription isn’t allowed, ask if your doctor can prescribe an alternative.

Traveling with medications

7. Bring your liquid medications. That 3.4-ounce rule for carrying liquids aboard a flight? It doesn’t apply to medications. If you’ve got cough syrup or another liquid medicine you need to take frequently, pack it in your carry-on. You don’t need to place it in a zip-top plastic bag (though you may want to, to prevent possible spills). But you must inform officers at the start of airline security check-in. And be aware that it may get X-rayed.

8. Remember your everyday remedies. Don’t forget your usual over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as pain relievers or cold remedies. They might not be available at your destination. As with your prescription medications, carry OTC products in their original packaging.

Make sure you have something for pain relief, an allergy medication (such as Benadryl®) and something for motion sickness (such as ginger root). Planning to sample the spicy local cuisine? Don’t forget a remedy for tummy troubles, such as Pepto-Bismol® or Mylanta®. (If you get sick while you're away and need to see a doctor, you can schedule a virtual visit with an Optum provider as soon as the same day. No insurance required.)

And just as with prescription medications, some OTC products may not be legal at some international destinations. “Be especially cautious about decongestants or cough expectorants,” advises Dr. Zimring. “Find out ahead of time if they’re permitted.”

9. Deal with diabetes. If you use insulin, bring an adequate supply in your carry-on. And if it needs to be refrigerated, pack it in an insulated bag. Don’t forget to bring plenty of syringes or pens and glucose sticks. Do you have an insulin pump, glucose monitor or other medical device attached to your body? Let the officers know before you go through the airport screening process. And if your diabetes treatment plan requires it, you can travel with a juice box or other liquid that’s more than the standard 3.4 ounces.

10. Think ahead. You never know when you might get sick. After all, the stress of travel — from running for connecting flights to finding your way through unfamiliar cities — can decrease your immunity. And sleep deprivation (can anybody really snooze on a plane?) weakens your body’s defense mechanisms.

“Before leaving, ask your family doc for a prescription for a general antibiotic, just in case,” advises Dr. Zimring. “Azithromycin or Keflex® can help with upper respiratory infections, and if you’re a woman who’s prone to urinary tract infections, ask for Cipro®. And if you’ve ever had a problem with bee stings, talk to your doctor about an EpiPen®.” Be ready for anything: What could be worse than getting sick on your dream vacation?

Man holding up medication
The Optum Store can help you save on your medication — and deliver it right to your door

Additional sources
Traveling with medication basics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Diabetes info: Transportation Security Administration