Saturday, May 8, 2010

How to: Minimize your Medicine Kit

The Problems of Travel Meds

Ah, I miss Peace Corps. Especially the medical kits they give you. It was the size of a large lunch box and packed with every over the counter medicine you could think of (in single-dose packaging), along with various bandages, antibiotics, antivirals (there was avian flu in the area) and exactly four condoms.

Since finishing Peace Corps, I slowly bled (figuratively and literally) through that box.  I thought I'd just pick up what I'd need on the road, but what I quickly discovered is that the foreign brands are completely unfamiliar and half the time I can't read the packaging.  I've had salespeople recommend what to take, but I also know that in a number of countries they prefer herbal remedies and distrust pharmaceuticals. A number of times I took something without knowing what was really in it. 

For a time I kept tossing in packs of DayQuil and NyQuil in the hopes that they would nuke any sickness I got while traveling, but I soon realized two things:
     1.They're expensive
      2.They're bulky

It says how anal I am when I look at thick gelatain capsules and think: “These take up too much space!” and it definitely speaks to how stingy I am when I think: “Eight dollars for medication? That's a night at a hostel!”

So I looked at what it was that I was actually taking—as in the ingredients—and started looking around for the specific meds within them.

What's in a SymptomPak

What I found was a brand called SymptomPak (the link goes to the product page on  The idea is that instead of buying multi-symptom medications, you buy only the base ingredients and take what you actually need.

I bought their 5-pack for $25, and in it was the following:

1.Acetaminophen, for aches and pains

2.Phenylephrine, for nasal and sinus congestion

3.Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant

4.Guaifenesin, for loosening chest congestion

5.Chlorpheniramine, a antihistamine for allergies (runny nose, itchy eyes, etc.)

When I was taking DayQuil, for example, I was really taking acetaminophen, phenylephrine and dextromethorphan mixed together.  From a economic standpoint, this is pretty sweet: there is 30 doses worth of Dayquil in there, not counting the other meds, and if the cold you'd take the Dayquil for didn't have, say, coughing, then you could just not take Dextromethorphan.

What's Worth Taking and Leaving
When I bought the multipak, I got it to have all the meds at home, while knowing that only some would accompany me on the road.  I'm picky about goes into my pack, so I decided on the following:.

1.Acetaminophen: Definitely. I've turned to this for everything from a strained foot ligament (Prague), aching muscles from diving (Egypt), to hangovers (Thailand).

2.Phenylephrine: Definitely. Although I tend to eat healthier when I travel, constant overnight travel, increased stress and less overall sleep means that I have gotten head colds while on the road. And since time is such a factor in travel, I'd rather dope up and enjoy another day than do a day of bed rest.  My motto: I'll sleep when I get home.

3.Dextromethorphan: Nope. I rarely have upper respiratory problems and rarely have problems with coughing. Rather, if I'm coughing, it's because I have mucus in my lungs and throat, and for that I'd rather turn to amoxcicillin.

[Read the blog post about getting antibiotics while on the road and how to use them]

4.Guaifenesin: Nope. Same as Dextromethorphan.

5.Chlorpheniramine: Yep. Ironically I don't like taking antihistamines for allergies, but I have discovered that they are important for two things: Insect bites and overnight travel. When I was in Honduras, I could barely sleep because of the sand flea bites ringing my ankles, and antihistamines made the itching temporarily go away. Also, I used to pack sleeping pills for overnight bus, train and plane trips because I find it almost impossible to sleep while sitting up, but then I had a nurse tell me that popping 3-4 antihistamines will have the same effect.  She was right.

What Else You Get:
The kit came with a color-coded chart listing symptoms and what to take, and you can take all five together if
need be. The pills were actually the same color as on the chart (acetaminophen is green, for example) and each was marked with the first letter of the medicine.

I don't think the chart is needed because the dosing is uniform: adults are meant to take two pills every four hours, no matter which kind you are taking.  From there it's just a matter of memorizing what symptom goes with what pill.  I didn't memorize the whole names, just thing like: "Phenyl=Runny Nose", "Dextro=Cough", etc.

What I hadn't realized would come with the kit, but which is pretty cool, is a small (about the size of two thick matchboxes) pill case with six compartments. As someone who has watched his pills get crushed in their packaging while in his backpack, I'm surprised I never thought to get one before.

All in their compartments, I realized the pills looked a little like candy and not unlike ecstasy pills, so they might cause a slight issue at border crossings. Still, I now easily have a year's worth of medicine in the space formally taken up by three doses of DayQuil liquicaps.


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