My Packing List: A Medical Kit for Travel in Southeast Asia
When you are planning a trip to a developing nation, health is a top concern. At the same time, you want to travel lightly. What to pack in a first aid kit for travel abroad depends on many factors, but most of all you want to balance your health needs with space in your backpack. This article describes the first aid kit I chose to pack on my travels in SE Asia and India, which met my needs perfectly.
I eliminated as much packaging as possible to save space in my kit (single-dose blister packs and solid options rather than bottles or tubes are perfect for pretty much everything). I was able to fit it all into two small zip-top bags: one bag was for stuff I wanted to have with me at all times, and the other was for daily medicines or ongoing care/non-emergency stuff.
For some, this list may seem excessive and for others, it might leave out crucial items, but for me, it was just right. My travel companions and I used almost everything at some point (except for the emergency stuff, like suture kits), as we traveled for several months. Of course, you should talk with your doctor or a travel medicine clinic or specialist about specific prescriptions and your personal health concerns. A travel medicine specialist can also advise you about recommended immunizations for travel to your destination.
I chose to take a Red Cross CPR and First Aid certification course before my departure. It is handy training to have! They have first aid kits for sale that may appeal to you, or you can make your own first aid kit in consultation with your travel clinic.
Also, I have listed a lot of name brands here because most people know them, but there is no reason not to use generics for pretty much everything. The amounts you pack of most things will depend on the length of your trip, so I have not really included them here. Don't worry too much; you can find most of what you need as you go. If you use it up, buy some more.
Insect repellant: you can pre-treat your clothes and sleep sack with permethrin to repel mosquitoes. It is also a good idea to bring some more repellant. I love oil of lemon eucalyptus: it is a natural product, it smells good, and it is CDC-approved!
Sunscreen: The solid stick kind is great for travel.
Vitamins: Ask your doctor about a multivitamin (if you don't already take one). I also brought Emergen-C packets because I like them.
Water purification system: I loved (love!) my Katadyn brand water bottle. It has a built-in filter that removes particulates, an iodine treatment column, and a charcoal filter that removes the iodine taste. The instructions say that one filter treats 40 gallons of water, and the water treatment is integrated into a water bottle , so it filters the water as you drink it. Having the freedom to drink the local tap water is really convenient and is more environmentally friendly than buying several bottles of water every day. Plus, you can't always trust bottled water (sometimes locals will refill and sell old bottles with tap water). Also, at only $50 for the whole thing, it probably didn't cost any more than buying all that bottled water. There are other options, such as UV sterilization or a portable water boiler, but this is just my personal favorite.
First Aid Supplies
Antibiotic ointment: sample-size (one-use) foil packets are very convenient.
Antiseptic: I chose travel-size bottles of Bactine and povidone-iodine, plus a few isopropyl alcohol and Hibiclens wipes (a surgical scrub).
Bandages: For wound care, I brought a few sterile 4X4-inch gauze pads, a small roll of medical tape, and a handful of adhesive bandages (i.e. Band-Aids) in assorted shapes and sizes. The fabric ones stay on better than plastic. The most common size of bandage is not really my favorite size: it always seems to be either too big or two small for my cuts and scrapes. The 1X3-inch sizes come in handy most often, but bring one or two of the 2X4-inch size and a few of the smaller, 1/4X2-inch size, and maybe a couple of fingertip and knuckle bandages.
Blister care: I packed a roll of Nexcare tape, which is great for preventing friction blisters, as well as a sheet of moleskin and some blister bandages, which are both great for taking care of blisters after they have formed.
Gloves: Bring several pairs of nitrile or latex gloves. It is hard to get clean enough to handle wounds; plus, you never want to handle another person's body fluids!
Hand Sanitizer: This is essential for travel anyway, but I decided to throw it in here, too. You'll want to use it before taking care of any wounds, handling, pills, etc.
Quick-clot: a product designed as a stop-gap for severe bleeding until you can get professional emergency attention
Other Medical Supplies
Digital thermometer in a case; thermometer covers.
Scissors: I brought a small set of safety shears. These scissors are very tough and come in handy, and you can buy them for about $2 at any drug or surplus store. Also, they don't have a sharp point so you can often bring them on a plane (though the rules are changing all the time, and vary among countries).
This might be overkill for you, but some remote places might not have trustworthy (sterile) hypodermic needles or suture kits available. My doctor was willing to give me a couple of suture kits and some hypodermic syringes with various-sized needles, plus a note explaining that I had her recommendation to carry them. These would only be something you would need at a hospital or doctor's office; you would just give the medical professional your own supplies to use them on you. The Hibiclens listed above might also be overkill for you; it is generally used as a surgical preparation.
You should bring adequate supplies of any medications you take regularly.
Try to pack tablets and not liquids. Liquids are heavy, messy, and not TSA-compliant. I asked my pharmacist for extra desiccant (silica gel) packets to keep all my pills dry in the humid weather of SE Asia, and just tossed them into my well-sealed pill containers.
Antacid: I didn't pack any, but if you aren't used to spicy food or are prone to heartburn, by all means, bring some!
Antihistamine: Benedryl (oral) and cortisone cream (topical)
Anti-malarials: I chose to take doxycycline as it seemed like the best balance of side-effects vs cost for me, but you may be better off with a different choice. For example, it is incompatible with antacids.
Antibiotics: Azithromycin, Ciprofloxacin, Metronidazole, Fluconazole (prescription antibiotics given by my travel clinic, each to be used only under specific circumstances)
Anti-diarrheal: Pepto-Bismol and Imodium are great. Bring both; Pepto is usually a better choice because Immodium can interfere with your body's natural defensive response to food poisoning.
Dehydration remedy: packets of powdered Pedialyte or other commercial oral rehydration salts (ORS) tablets or packets.
Pain and fever: your favorite NSAID. I like Aleve/naproxen sodium best, but you should bring whatever you usually use.
Sleep Aids: Your doctor might prescribe prescription sleep aids for jet lag, but you should also consider melatonin or your other favorite natural sleep aid; I like Hyland's Calms Forte.
Keep a single folder with all your crucial travel documents, including:
Emergency contact info: your doctor at home, trusted family/friend contacts at home, and contact information for your nation's embassy in your destination(s)
Medication information leaflets for all medications (for example, some common travel medications cannot be taken together, so it is best to keep all this information handy). It is also really handy to have the generic chemical name for any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter) you might need, because they are usually marketed under different names in different countries. A pharmacist anywhere will be able to help if you have the drug's official name.
Passport photos (spares)
Photocopies of ID and visas
Prescriptions, including a prescription for corrective lenses, if applicable (backup prescriptions you could fill if yours were stolen or destroyed somehow) and a doctor's note about any specific medical conditions or equipment you carry (such as hypodermic needles).
Things I did not include
These could be useful, but I didn't include these in my first aid kit, either because they were somewhere else in my pack:
Extra zip-top bags, lighter, headlamp, phone card, safety pins
...Or, I didn't think I would need them or could buy/improvise them in a pinch:
Emergency dental kit, slings/splints/ACE wraps, Epi-Pen, tweezers, burn cream, CPR barrier (a calculated risk: the big one was just too big, the wallet-sized one seems too hard to use, and, frankly, I would do compression-only CPR on a stranger in a place where I can't even drink the water)
Good luck, and safe travels!