Sick While Traveling? Make a Mobile Medicine Cabinet

Posted on
Mar 8, 2012

Sometime around yesterday afternoon, I realized something: I was sick.

More than a few of you are likely thinking, “Well, obviously. It’s not normal for a grown woman to constantly obsess about baked goods and Jeff Goldblum. At least she finally admitted it. Now she can get help.”

And to those folks I laugh and say, No, no, no! I’m not talking mental sickness (I will write JEFF GOLDBLUM 4-EVER on the cover of my notebooks until the day I die, even though it’s been years since I’ve actually needed a notebook for anything.). No, I mean I’m actually feeling ill. Sick. Able to breathe through only one nostril, which keeps switching and I only notice it after the fact.

I blame my husband. He seems to be an incubator for all sorts of illnesses, yet never shows even a hint of a symptom.

“Everyone in the office is sick,” he’ll say, and within a matter of hours, I will be afflicted despite NOT HAVING SET FOOT IN HIS OFFICE IN WEEKS. You’d think that he’d at least have the decency to feel rotten himself after giving me consumption, but no. NO. He just walks around with his rosy cheeks, haughtily breathing through both nostrils without a care in the world.


Here he is eating candy off the floor of a museum and suffering ZERO consequences (note: it was part of an interactive exhibit, but STILL).

I would be cursing him even more had he not arrived home from work with a slice of lemon pie for me. (A slice which I just realized I probably can’t taste because of aforementioned clogged nostrils. That’s it. I’m so wiping my nose on a voodoo doll of him.)

I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s not as bad as it could be. If I’m going to be sick, at least it’s while I’m at home, where I have lots of soup and tea and countless episodes of The Office to cringe through. Because I’ve been sick on the road, and let me tell you: it sucks. Profoundly. I’ve talked about things you can do to make it better, ways to explore a city while quietly hacking up a lung.

But I neglected to mention one thing that I always travel with: my mobile medicine cabinet.

It’s nothing particularly fancy. It’s an old plastic cosmetics bag that I have constantly stocked with all manner of things. Before I go anywhere, I throw it into my suitcase along with my neti-pot, and I’m ready for any eventuality from sore throats to bug bites. And so, as I sit here too congested to bother telling you about the British Museum or Antonio Gaudi (soon, I promise), I’d like to share with you what’s inside my little cosmetic bag of medical tricks.

But let me say, before I wax poetically about all the over-the-counter goodies we get in our country, that I do think we tend to over-medicate a lot. Antibiotics should not be taken hastily. Pain meds shouldn’t be downed like Skittles (also, a lot of medications have candy coatings nowadays, which is just MESSED UP).

I generally try to fight most things off with a mix of fluids, rest, and whining (it has an eventual, though not immediate, 100% success rate). But there is something incredibly comforting about having this stuff with me, just in case (I doubt it needs to be said, but still – I’m in no way a professional, and this is not medical advice. Obviously, you should talk to a doctor before taking any sort of medication, over-the-counter or otherwise):

  1. Sudafed. I realize it’s one of the key ingredients in any good family meth recipe, but it’s also a godsend at 35,000 feet when your sinuses won’t clear up and your head feels like it may, if left unattended, explode. Plus, new restrictions mean that this powerful decongestant is difficult – if not impossible – to buy in a lot of states (in Oregon, it’s only available by prescription), so I always have some with me.
  2. Ibuprofen. Not only will having this in your bag come in handy if you get any aches or pains, but it will make your travel buddies forever indebted to you when they need some and you can deliver. “Why yes, I do have some Advil … It will only cost you YOUR SOUL.”
  3. DayQuil and NyQuil (in tablet form). I’ve heard that supposedly you can’t take liquid caplets on a flight without putting them in your 1-quart bag, but I’ve never had a problem packing these in my carry-on. Which is a good thing, because I honestly have never found an over-the-counter medication that holds a candle to Day or NyQuil.
  4. Band-aids. Forgive me. I obviously mean “adhesive bandage strips.”
  5. Moleskin. For when days of walking a city in search for cupcakes starts to irritate your tootsies, this stuff is a life-saver. I usually stick it straight on the inside part of the shoe that’s bugging me.
  6. A small pair of scissors. As long as the blade is less than 4-inches, you can take these with you in your carry-on (pack them carefully so you don’t accidentally stab yourself while rummaging in your bag).
  7. Antibiotic ointment (Neosporin) – This stuff is actually not terrific, and should – like all antibiotics – be used rarely. But if you get a nasty scrape, it’s always nice to have (pack it in your 1-quart liquids bag).
  8. Hydrocortisone (anti-itch) cream. Perfect for bug bites, irritations, topical allergies, and any other skin issues that come up (again, pack it in your 1-quart liquids bag. And use sparingly, as long-term use can thin your skin).
  9. Anti-diarrhea tablets. If you have them with you, you save yourself the embarrassment of having to explain your symptoms to the tiny Scottish woman working at a drugstore in Glasgow.

    Fun fact: they spell diarrhea differently across the pond.


  10. Nail clippers and tweezers. Make sure the clippers don’t have a blade or knife attachment, as those are forbidden by the TSA (nail files are just fine, though).
  11. Meclizine. I’m constantly looking for ways to combat vertigo, which often hits me while I travel. Meclizine is some potent stuff (use it sparingly, or you’ll just might end up wandering through Boston, sedated), but it’s available over-the-counter, and will send your nausea packing.
  12. Neti-pot and solution packets. I swear by the neti-pot. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s basically a tiny teapot that you can use to irrigate your sinuses. I know, it sounds gross. And it kind of is. But it’s also fascinating (YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO LOOK AWAY), and it cleans the heck out of your nostrils – perfect when you’re sick, or recovering from a nasty flight.
  13. Aquaphor. I use this petroleum-based product on cuts and scrapes, but it’s also great for intensely dry skin or chapped lips. It comes in tiny tubes that fit easily into your 1-quart liquids bag.
  14. Benadryl (or any other antihistamine). You never know when allergies might pop up, especially while traveling.

    Like when an unexpected sheep encounter leaves you sniffling.


  15. Tissues. A necessity for sniffly noses, these are also handy when you find yourself in a bathroom without toilet paper (which happens a lot during my travels).
  16. Multi-vitamins and echinacea. I’m terrible about taking vitamins when I’m healthy, but I do it without fail when I’m feeling sick, in hopes of getting my body back to normal. It might be just a placebo-effect, but hey – placebos work.

    Mimosas are great for a cold, because they deliver lots of Vitamin C. And champagne.


  17. Wet-wipes. Ideal for all those times I can’t get to a bathroom, but still want clean hands. And they’re perfect for disinfecting germ-ridden places you encounter while traveling: folding trays on airplanes, remote controls in hotel rooms, the steering wheel on your rental car. Just don’t go overboard: it’s easy to get carried away and find yourself in Lady-MacBeth-OUT-DAMN-SPOT territory.
  18. Any prescription medication you might need. I always carry mine with me in my carry-on or purse, so I know it won’t get lost, and I bring more than enough for the duration of my travels (you never know when you might get delayed, or want to extend your trip).
I know it’s a long list, but all this stuff is pretty compact. I’ve got it ready to go, so I can just pop it in my bag and be off. I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy for me and Rand. Right now I’m not going anywhere but the couch, but I still might take my mobile medicine cabinet with me. Just in case.


Leave a Comment

  • Melanie

    This is a great list. I don’t travel often but I think it may be time to create my own traveling medicine cabinet.

    I, too, swear by all things neti pot. I use the Neilmed one and I love it. (comment not sponsored by Neilmed, but if they feel the need to send me a Neilmed Subaru Outback, I will gladly accept).

  • I have one of these…almost identical to yours but with American Immdoium…couldn’t live without it. My son-in-law owes me big for the Excedrin packs I had this week since it has been recalled and he couldn’t get any at the store. Mine might have expired 2 years ago but who looks at that anyway? I would add some Biofreeze (or Bengay) for the inability to move your head after sleeping in a strange bed or sore muscles from trying to lean away from your seat mate on the plane.

  • TheOtherLisa

    I totally have one of those “carrier, but not catcher” husbands. Please let me know how that nose wiping voodoo doll thing works out, I may give it a whirl.

    I once tried to use a neti pot. I was very close to being a death by misadventure statistic.

    • You mean, drowning while standing up? I use the neilmed sinusrinse, which is like a baby aspirator but for grownups. It works better for me.

      • TheOtherLisa

        Interesting. Disgusting beyond all measure, but it looks like it might work better. Thanks!

  • Excellent, comprehensive yet indeed compact “Mobile Medicine Cabinet”. The only thing I might add: Milk of Magnesia tablets – for reversing the effects of the Lomotil/anti-diarrhea tablets – AFTER you get off the bus. 😉

    I’d also underscore the HUGE benefits of simply increasing your intake of FLUIDS (seriously, til you feel like you may well FLOAT AWAY).

    Oh, and yes, yes “whining” works wonders as well. 😉

  • Liz

    Just be sure you’re using distilled water with your neti pot – don’t want to die of brain-eating ameoba! So wonderful to know that’s in our drinking water…

    • Everywhereist

      I have never been so horrified of tap water …

  • I’m off down the Phamarcists now ….

  • We have similar medicine pouches, though I make sure that there’s plenty of pepto-bismol in mine as well. It’s nice for when your stomach is definitely unhappy with you, but you don’t quite need immodium. I know it’s not a medicine, but tide-to-go comes in handy as well.
    I’ll have to find a small pair of scissors- that’s such a good idea!

    and I’ve been known to carry a whole roll of toilet paper, but only when I’m traveling in certain countries- my travel companions usually start out making fun of me and then have promised me their first borns in exchange for some by the end.

  • Great list. Benadryl is also an amazing sleep aide and can be used on long flights – you can wake up if necessary and you will be drowsy, but you can function, unlike with Ambien, et al:)

    Some of these things are also quite easy to get in SE Asia, so no need to bring them (if you’re trying to travel light). Just make sure to go to a reputable pharmacy, look at the expiration dates on drugs, and don’t be afraid to ask for the “local” brand which is the “generic” and usually 1/10th the cost of our name-brand.

    The NeilMed Bottle and solution packets are a God-send (no Subaru here either – YET!) I don’t travel ANYWHERE without them.

    When I had a really badly infected toe in this super-humid climate, the POWDER form of Neosporin (I got it in Bali) was the only thing that would dry it out and kill the infection. I had never seen this in the states and am not sure if we have it there. It’s quite expensive here but works way better than the ointment when the environment is wet and grimy.

    Just my two cents!

    Thanks again for the list!

  • Andi

    Meclizine has saved me many a time. And it also is a good sleep aid. One meclizine pill + one beer (4 hours later) = extreme drowsiness. Great for an 8 hour flight. Though not recommended otherwise.

  • Terrific list! Two others I don’t leave home without are Tums and Nexium. I’m also a big fan of Kiehl’s Lip Balm #1 and keep a tube in my purse. It’s really good for healing chapped fingers as well as lips, and takes no time at all to do it.

  • RiderWriter

    I am laughing because never mind travel, this is almost a list of the stuff I carry in my purse on a daily basis. Cannot tell you HOW many times I’ve bailed out a family member, friend or even complete stranger: “You wouldn’t happen to have any ____, would you?” “Why, yes, yes I do…”

    I also laugh because the men in my family like to whine about the size of my purse – which is smaller than yours, I might add 🙂 – but then are extremely grateful when I’m able to reach within and extract the exact item they are pining for, usually ibuprofen. This has gone on long enough that now they usually just say, “Can I see your pink bag?” because they know I’ll probably have something in it that will bring relief.

    Personally, I stay away from the “Quil” family. I prefer the DIY method of taking the stuff that’s in them separately. Be careful you don’t overdose if you do take a Quil along with something else. And the new NyQuil Sleep Aid stuff is a TOTAL ripoff – nothing but the drug in Benadryl (diphenhydramine) which I ALWAYS have, use as a sleep aid and can be bought at Walmart in generic form for four cents a pill.

  • Tizzette

    Pedialyte powder is the single most important item in my travel medical kit. If you have an episode of vomiting and diarrhea or just get dehydrated from a hangover, just mix up your Pedialyte powder with water to rehydrate and feel better.

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