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Traveling with Medications: What You Need to Know

If you’re heading out on a long trip—or moving abroad for a while—and you rely on prescriptions, it’s vital to your health to know the rules about traveling with medications. “Millions of Americans are dependent on medicines and with the globalization of travel, access to prescription medicine is even more crucial,” explains Dr. Robert Quigley with International SOS.

From how to get more than a 30-day supply of pills to what you’ll need from your stateside doctor to get a prescription abroad, here’s advice from international healthcare experts about traveling with medications.

How to Travel with Medications

  • Make a date with your doctors
  • Find the loopholes for refilling prescriptions overseas
  • Always have a note from your doctor
  • Keep medicines in their original bottles
  • Always pack medicine in your carry-on
  • Bring twice the medication you’ll need
  • Be strategic about your meds
  • Consider travel insurance
  • Plan ahead

Make a Date with Your Doctors

In addition to calling your banks, exchanging some cash, and shedding a tear at your “see you abroad” party, you should also schedule pre-departure appointments with your doctors. During these office visits, get a full physical in the doc’s specialty and begin the discussion of traveling. Work with your doctor to plan for the medications you’ll need on-hand. Medical professionals can help you secure more than a 30-day supply of any necessary medicines, along with the paperwork. They can also offer advice about what you need to bring to keep your health top-notch.

Find the Loopholes for Refilling Prescriptions Overseas

Dr. Quigley explains that prescriptions cannot be filled overseas, nor can your primary care doctor call in a prescription for you overseas. However, there’s a way around it: knowing the generic forms and other names of the same medicine. Depending on the country, you may even be able to get the medicine without a prescription. As Dr. Christopher C. Hollingsworth, MD, a general and endovascular surgeon who has practiced in Europe and the United States explains, “Laws regarding medications vary by region, but for the most part, whatever medication you are taking in the U.S., is unlikely to get you in trouble during foreign travel.”

As an example, Dr. Hollingsworth was able to walk into a pharmacy in Paris and receive antibiotics for a pal with a killer ear infection, no note required. Even so, packing a few items you might need before you leave will help ease your worries. Your primary care doctor can help you navigate your options, all before you set sail.

Always Have a Note from Your Doctor

Though Dr. Hollingsworth says it’s unlikely you’ll get stopped at customs or border control because you’re carrying more than a month’s supply of medicine, having an official prescription on-hand is never a bad idea. “In general, countries honor the rights of travelers to transport their prescribed medications with them. As long as you have some documentation that these are prescribed by a physician, you are unlikely to have a problem,” he explains.

Dr. Brendan Anzalone, a doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and the President and Chief Medical Officer at AeroMD Air Ambulance, suggests going digital with these forms, as they can get lost or creased throughout your travels. This will ensure you won’t have to go digging, just in case you’re questioned.

Keep Medicines in Their Original Bottles

Again, while it’s unlikely you will face any sort of issue when you’re traveling with prescription medication, Dr. Anzalone still recommends keeping your pills in the original bottle—complete with the sticker on the front with your name and doctor’s name—as an extra safety precaution. “Carrying your medication in their original prescription bottle with a label on it from the pharmacy is helpful if there are any questions in the security line,” he explains.

Always Pack Medicine in Your Carry-On

Now that you have the prescriptions you need and the note from your doc to prove your case, it’s time to pack. Depending on how much medicine you need each day, you may be tempted to shove your pill pack into your checked bag, but Dr. Anzalone warns to refrain and take it on board, instead: “It is best to keep your medications in your carry-on baggage. If your checked baggage gets lost, you will still have your prescription medications with you. Remember that some aircraft cargo holds are not temperature controlled, which may affect temperature-sensitive medications.”

If you’re worried about traveling with medication that must be refrigerated (like insulin, for example), Dr. Hollingsworth offers the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations information on cool packs that are allowed through the gates: “Domestically, gel-cooling packs are allowed if frozen at time of presentation to security.”

Bring Twice the Medication You’ll Need

Dr. Hollingsworth’s rule-of-thumb is to bring twice the amount of medicine you need and to separate the bottles between your carry-on and your hand luggage. Why? Two words: flight troubles. “If you are on a rigidly scheduled trip, changes or delays can have a butterfly effect than can have repercussions for the rest of your trip. After that train you missed in Zurich, you might end up losing your hotel reservation in Milan, and so forth. Plan for the unexpected and pack extra medication you might need for an unplanned longer stay,” he says.

Be Strategic About Your Meds

If your carry-on is just too heavy to meet those puddle-jumper restrictions, Dr. Hollingsworth challenges you to be strategic. While you might want to take your mini-sized bottle of Advil, those sorts of medications are available everywhere. Instead, be mindful of the pills that get you through everyday tasks: “Give priority to any medications that are vital to your functioning or survival. Asthma inhalers, diabetic medications, anti-seizure medications, and blood pressure medications come to mind. Make sure to bring medications that have rebound or withdrawal symptoms if you run out,” he says. “A trip is not a good time to see how you function without your arthritis or anti-anxiety medications.”

Consider Travel Insurance

There are many factors that impact your access to insurance abroad. How long will you be traveling? Where are you going? Will you be lounging by a beach for a month or skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef? If you’ll need health insurance for your trip, Dr. Quigley recommends exploring your options before heading overseas to determine what policy and plan is best for you. You can also work with assistance companies—like International SOS—that can help you when you’re struggling overseas.

Most Importantly, Plan Ahead

Plan ahead, especially if you’re switching time zones and have to take medicine at a certain time of day. “Have a medical itinerary run parallel to your day-to-day travel itinerary. Plan out the nearest towns of where you’re going to be and identify the best providers for you based on your specific medical needs. Don’t let it be a fire drill when you get there,” he says. “If you know in 30 days you need to have a prescription refilled, and you know where you will be within that time frame, then research which medical professional will be best for you. Do your homework.” It just may save your trip, or even your life.

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Lindsay Tigar is a travel and lifestyle writer with a constant thirst for adventure and exploring new lands. You can find Lindsay globetrotting when the mood strikes, making sure to find time to explore both the wine and fitness scene in countries across the globe. Her work has appeared across dozens of outlets; learn more at LindsayTigar.com.

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