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A Cruiser’s Medical Kit: Packing Prescription Drugs, OTC Medications and What to Leave at Home

Janice Wald Henderson

Oct 25, 2022

Read time
7 min read

Seasoned travelers know: Every cruiser should carry his/her own personalized medical kit just in case they fall ill at sea or in transit. This is a list that should be developed through a discussion with your personal or travel physician, as your own doctor knows you and any current, or potential, conditions far better than any shipboard medical professional. Plus, it’s not always easy to obtain specific prescriptions when cruising; it’s far better to have a “just in case” supply selected by your medical provider.

Whatever belongs in your kit, place the majority -- particularly prescription medications -- in your carry on bag, avoiding potential luggage mishaps. I also carry potentially needed over-the-counter drugs, like ibuprofen or upset-stomach medicine, for easy reach while enroute.

All medications, prescription and over-the-counter, should remain in pharmaceutical packaging. You never know when passport control or other officials might open your bag and grow suspicious spotting loose pills. Besides, it's a lot easier to remember what you're taking, and how to take it, if properly labeled.

In case you lose any vital prescription medication, bring written prescriptions replete with dosages from your doctor. That way, you can may receive better assistance and substitutions from a shipboard doctor or local pharmacy. If you carry syringes, pack a doctor's letter explaining why.

The following is what I pack and is meant as an example only, not as medical advice. Consult with your physician before packing any medications -- even over the counter -- in case of possible contraindications. Always carry enough prescription medicine (the ones taken regularly) for two weeks past your return home from a cruise. You never know what could keep you from traveling home as scheduled. Speaking of potential travel obstacles, I also pack COVID self-tests.

Also, carrying your own medication is no substitute for having a good travel medical insurance policy that will cover you in an emergency overseas.

Over-The-Counter Medicines to Pack

Afrin: When flying, I follow the recommended nose drop dosing to avoid “airplane ear” on altitude climbs and descents; my allergies make me prone to feeling the stuffiness and pain of ear pressure imbalance. Should I start sniffling before jetting home, I start Afrin one day before the flight to help avoid those uncomfortable symptoms.

Aleve or Advil: My go-to for bad headaches and muscle aches. I always take as directed with a full glass of water, to avoid stomach issues and kidney strain, and with food, if possible.

Biofreeze: Sore or strained muscles can occur from sitting on long flights, lifting luggage, using different workout equipment in the ship gym or even on shore excursions like hikes and horseback rides. When I rub on the gel, I find this handy medication brings immediate relief.

Bonine: This nausea medicine works better for me than Dramamine and doesn't make me as drowsy.

Imodium: Keep in purse or carry-on for handy retrieval should stomach issues arise traveling to and from cruise ships, as well as onboard.

Neosporin: An accidental cut gets a treatment from this topical antibiotic ointment to avoid bacterial skin infections.

Pepto Bismol: Just a good, all-around relief choice for digestive issues.

Other OTC Options to Pack

I don’t usually pack the following, but these might be relevant to your well-being and should be discussed with your physician.

Antacid: Concerned about eating richer foods and drinking more than usual? Antacids come in handy for the occasional heartburn.

Antihistamine: If you’re prone to allergies, pack a doctor-recommended antihistamine. Benadryl can make you drowsy, which can disrupt sightseeing plans, but it can work well.

Decongestant:  If you catch a cold, you might want over-the-counter medications to reduce symptoms. Ask your doctor which decongestant nasal spray, cough suppressant and/or expectorant is helpful.

Hydrocortisone cream: Are you a cruiser prone to contact dermatitis (skin inflammation resulting in rashes, dry skin and/or itching), or mosquito bites when moving about ashore? Pack a hydrocortisone cream to ease the discomfort.

Laxatives: If travel causes irregularity, mild laxatives like Dulcolax can offer relief.

Prescription Medications to Pack

Whatever I take daily, I pack in my handbag in a Ziplock plastic bag. For my carry-on, I pack meds that I hope to never use but will be thrilled to have should I need them. They're always grouped together in a Ziplock bag.

Before taking any prescription medicine that I don’t normally take, I always contact my physician first for approval. If I can't reach my doctor quickly, I try to wait for his reply. At least I know already that such drugs are not contraindicated for me.

Antibiotics: I pack specific antibiotics for specific potential bacterial illnesses, such as upper respiratory, intestinal and urinary tract infections.

Inhalers: As I’m prone to bronchial asthma if I get a cold or bronchitis, I carry a rescue inhaler (like Ventolin) which quickly relaxes and opens airways, and a steroidal one (such as Flovent) should I need more than a quick, temporary fix.

Prednisone: Prednisone is a corticosteroid medicine that decreases inflammation. I am prone to colds quickly becoming bronchitis, and sometimes, develop a chronic bronchial response. If this applies to you, or you have any other condition that may occasionally require prednisone, discuss with your physician.

Sleep Aid: I pack Xanax or its equivalent for sleeping on an airplane or adjusting to jet lag at-sea. I do not drink before I take it. It’s not a sleeping pill, it’s an anti-anxiety drug that happens to do the trick for me. If you’re about to fly on a lengthy flight and cross many time zones, you might want some sleep assistance. Your physician can prescribe an appropriate drug.

Tylenol with Codeine: On one cruise, my husband broke his shoulder mountain-biking. How I wish we had Tylenol with Codeine for the pain. Our ship doctor had no x-ray machine to confirm breakage and offered no prescription-strength medication; we were in a port without a hospital in reach. We relied on ice, Advil and a silk scarf sling for pain control until we debarked. Such measures came far short; we telephoned an orthopedic surgeon friend back home to see how much Advil my husband could safely take. Now I always pack this medication for any such extreme emergency.

Zofran: Generically known as Ondansetron, this is a fantastic medication for when serious seasickness strikes. It’s traditionally given to cancer patients for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. I've only taken it once, when crossing a very rough Drake Passage on an Antarctica sailing, and it took the nausea away nearly immediately. I pack the sublingual, or dissolve under-the-tongue, version. Like most prescription drugs, it’s not appropriate for everyone, but if your physician approves it and you know you’re heading for extremely rough seas, consider yourself lucky.

Medicines Not to Pack

Do check a country's rules as to what you may legally bring in before entering. This is especially important if you’re planning pre or post-cruise stays.

For instance, the United Arab Emirates has strict rules regarding some prescription and even over-the-counter drugs. Codeine and Tramadol (an opioid analgesic) requires advanced approval to take into the Emirates, and also, to other parts of the world.

Ambien, a rather commonly prescribed sleeping pill in the United States, is also prohibited in some countries. Even some OTC medications, such as allergy, cold and cough medicines, are considered controlled substances in certain countries.

The rules constantly change. Stay up-to-date with a travel medicine physician or through a country’s website.

No matter where you travel, leave cannabis, even if it's cannabis oil or medical marijuana, and CBD at home. They're illegal in many countries.

Updated October 25, 2022
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