Holiday Travel: Is Your First Aid Kit Ready?

Your first aid travel kit should also include: sunscreen rated at least 30 SPF; small bottles of alcohol hand sanitizer; bandages; an antibiotic ointment; chewable antacid pills to cure heartburn; and anti-itch cream such as the OTC steroid hydrocortisone. It’s very common to have a headache or pain during vacations, whether from a sunburn, altitude sickness or any myriad reason. To help with this, you should bring along some child and adult versions of pain medicines, as you never know what your local pharmacy will have. Tylenol (paracetamol) and Motrin (ibuprofen) are the two most common OTC medicines, and both are very safe at the proper dose. I prefer ibuprofen due to its anti-inflammatory properties, although it can cause more stomach problems. Most children’s syrups come in sizes under 100 ml and thus are good for carry-on luggage.

Many travelers will visit high mountain areas such as Tibet. It can be a fantastic vacation — but many trips have been ruined by getting altitude sickness. Any elevation over 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) can cause this. The symptoms are similar to a hangover: a headache is the classic symptom, followed sometimes by tiredness, nausea and no appetite. Everyone is susceptible, including children, especially those under 2 years old. It’s estimated that 25% of travelers get this mountain illness. With this “mild” form of altitude sickness, a bad headache for a couple days usually isn’t a big deal, and Tylenol here and there will get most people through just fine. But there are more serious forms of altitude sickness, causing acute brain swelling or fluid in the lungs. It is these severe forms, which can be fatal within just a few hours, that worry doctors the most.

There is one prescription medicine called acetazolamide or methazolamide which can effectively decrease your risk of getting severe altitude sickness. It can also make the milder symptoms even milder. It may save your trip as well as your life, but there are common side effects including increased urination and a pins-and-needles sensation in the fingertips. Other agents such as gingko have mixed evidence. When we were visiting the amazingly beautiful Jiuzhaigou we took a popular local Chinese TCM mixture to help against the high altitude, but I honestly can’t say if it really worked. If I were traveling to Tibet I would skip all those local herbal medicines and stick with the most proven, evidence-based medicines. Altitude sickness, like malaria, is not something you want to risk by taking herbal remedies when much better medicines are available.

If you take daily medicines for chronic diseases, don’t forget to bring enough to cover your trip — and maybe a bit more in case an elephant tramples on them. Also, keep a detailed list of your medicines somewhere safe, in case you lose your luggage and need all new medicines.

Enjoy your trip, and stay healthy!

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