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Pack These OTC Medications to Guard Against Common Vacation Killers

Pack These OTC Medications to Guard Against Common Vacation Killers

Written By: Kate Finkelston on June 06, 2018

Dr. Mia Finkelston, Medical Director and family physician on Amwell]

It's your vacation. And the last thing you need is a pesky summer illness ruining your time off. Many people travel with first aid kits, including products like band aids, tissues, neosporin, cotton swabs, etc. But there is a lot you can do to beef up your first aid/travel kit.

There are many common summer conditions that can be easily combated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Be prepared! Dr. Mia Finkelston, Medical Director and Family Physician with Amwell, recommends that you grab a few affordable OTC medications before your trip. With this list, you won't have to risk getting ill for even a second of your much-deserved time off.


If you have allergies, you are probably aware they may get flared while traveling. Before going on your trip, check the local pollen forecast and understand the climate so you can be prepared if affected.

"I suggest starting a steroid nasal spray a few days before you leave for your trip - these medications will take a few days to start working well. Continue to use the nasal spray while you're traveling for full effect. Popular and effective nasal steroids include both Nasacort and Flonase," shares Dr. Mia.

Product #1: Nasacort
Price: $30
What does it do? This product works by decreasing inflammation in the nasal passageways. Inflammation can cause mucus production, an itching/tickle sensation and sneezing, among other things.

Product #2: Saline (Salt) Water Nasal Spray
Price: $2-5
What does it do? Use saline spray multiple times daily to keep your nose clear of any allergens or germs that tend to get trapped in the nasal passageways.

Product #3: Oral Antihistamines
Price: $25 for 70 tabs
What does it do? "These medications can help runny noses, tickle in the throat or ears, and sneezing. They often have some side effects though, so know which one works best for you and grab it before your trip. If you don't usually use them, I suggest Allegra or Fexofenadine, given that they are not sedating. All oral antihistamines can make people a bit dry in the mouth."

Product #4: Tecnu
Price: $11
What does it do? Poison Ivy, which is a skin allergy, can be an extremely itchy and annoying reaction. "Wash the exposed area as soon as you can with soap and warm water. A rash from poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac is caused by an oil found in these plants called urushiol (you-roo-shee-all). When this oil touches your skin, it often causes an itchy, blistering rash. If you can get your hands on Tecnu, it will help remove the oil. Having a topical hydrocortisone cream at the ready to apply to any and all itchy areas, can also be useful."



Even if you do your best to avoid the sun altogether or wear 70+ SPF, there is still a chance you get a burn, so be prepared. Have multiple bottles of sunscreen available and use them. Most importantly, don't forget to reapply, as prevention is key!

Product #1: Sunscreen
Price: $1-$12 an ounce
What does it do? Sunscreen deflects or scatters the sun rays away from the skin. Some products, like zinc oxide, create a physical sunblock. The sun produces both UVA and UVB rays and newer sunscreens actually protect against both types of rays. UVA rays are more responsible for causing wrinkles and age spots, whereas the UVB rays are responsible for sunburns. Both types can cause skin cancer.

"It is more important to apply and reapply, than to worry about which sunscreen you use. Finding a product that you like and blocks both types of rays is important. Remember: just because you purchase SPF 60 and your friend purchases SPF 30 does not mean you can stay in the sun for twice as long. SPF doesn't affect length of time - it is the amount of protection that lotion provides," says Dr. Mia. "Many experts say that the benefit from SPF over 50 is so small it isn’t worth it, especially when the prices may be higher. It’s most important to apply and reapply. In addition, we all burn at different rates, so you need to worry about yourself and not rely on others to remind you."

For children, limiting their sun exposure, especially during peak hours (10am-2pm in particular) is vital. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Practice recommend keeping children under the age of 6 months out of the sun altogether.

Use about 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover your entire body. It will be helpful if you measure once so you can see how much to use moving forward. Sunscreen will typically wear off every 2 hours, so try your best to reapply within that amount of time.

Another important item to note when in the sun, is that alcohol and the sun really do not mix. Drinking alcohol puts you at risk for dehydration and heatstroke, plus it makes it harder to remember to reapply sunscreen. Additionally, both lime and lemon juice can cause a chemical reaction when on your skin. This condition is commonly known as "margarita dermatitis" and can occur when the citrus mixes with sunlight and then ultimately, burns your skin.

Product #2: Ibuprofen
Price: $3 for 100 tabs (generic)
What does it do? At the first sign of a sunburn, use a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen or Aleve immediately - make sure you take this medication with food. This will help reduce the inflammation and redness in the skin. For tightness and any peeling, use aloe creams and reapply often.

Drinking water can help keep you hydrated. Keep in mind that an hour in the sun, whether you are active or not, can increase your chances of dehydration. Rehydrating every hour is important.



Product #1: Lotion/Bug Spray
Price: $5
What does it do? Any product that contains DEET is a great way to repel against mosquitoes and ticks, but it does not do much against other biting insects, such as black flies, fleas and mites. Bug repellents that contain Picaridin do a good job of repelling mosquitoes and ticks in some independent tests. This product is safe for children of all ages. The most common side effect is skin irritation.

The DEET question: is it safe? DEET is the only truly effective insect repellent. People often confuse DEET with DDT. DDT was a pesticide that was banned in 1972 due to toxic effects. DEET is a modern insect repellent that the EPA has repeatedly reviewed. They have concluded that it is safe for both adults and children, as long as the product is used correctly. The American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees slightly, and thinks that children should only use these products when they contain no more than 30 percent DEET. The CDC now recognizes other mosquito repelling ingredients as effective weapons. Specifically against Malaria, West Nile virus, Lyme’s Disease and other insect borne diseases. In addition to DEET, you can try:

  1. Repel - Lemon Eucalyptus: $5
  2. Sawyer’s - Picaridin: $10
  3. IR3535 - ethyl ester: $8
  4. Tick-Ban - 2-undecanone (for skin and clothing): $12

Product #2: DOMEBORO
Price: $17
What does it do? "One of my favorite treatments for bug bites is DOMEBORO. This old-time product is sold in the first aid aisle at most pharmacies and can be a game changer for that pesky itch and local swelling! I suggest mixing it with cool water and use the compress for five minutes or so for quick relief," shares Dr. Mia.



Product #1: Ear drops
Price: $3
What does it do? If you have been spending time swimming, water can temporarily get trapped in your ear. Usually, this water will find its way out, but in some cases, people can get a bacterial infection in the external canal, which causes pain and fever. If you have the sensation of water in the ear, simply pour a cap full of rubbing alcohol directly in the ear canal (as long as you don't have any ongoing ear problems) and when it evaporates, often the water will dry out, too.

If you have ear wax problems, then softening the wax with Debrox drops or the generic equivalent, may also help clear the ear.

If an infection seems likely, please call your local PCP or provider to speak to a doctor about getting proper topical antibiotics.



Condition: Diarrhea
Product: Pepto Bismal chewables
Price: $8
What does it do? "These chewables can help bind your stool and stop the diarrhea. Reminder: these chewables will turn your stool black/deep green and this is normal. I do not typically recommend Imodium, instead I suggest eating white rice to bind the stool," says Dr. Mia.

Condition: Jellyfish Sting in seawater
Product: Cool, fresh water
What does it do? For the itch, without a sting, simply rinsing the area in a pool or shower will eradicate the itchy skin.

Condition: Jellyfish Sting in tropical waters
What does it do? 
Do not use fresh water for stings because it can activate the nematocysts and worsen the sting. Try vinegar, which will inhibit the nematocyst firing.

Condition: Seabather's Eruption/Sea Lice
Product: Hydrocortisone Cream
Price: $5
What does it do? This cream will help relieve the itchy, red rash, that the larvae of certain anemones located in the Atlantic Ocean, can cause. In severe cases, you may need a course of oral steroids that your doctor can prescribe.

If you are ever in need of a provider while traveling, we have doctors available 24/7, nation-wide. Fingers crossed you have a safe and healthy vacation, but if a problem or illness strikes, we are always here for you. Happy Summer!

The above prices are not exact, but are estimates based on Amazon and CVS listed prices.