ASK THE PHARMACIST: ‘Tis the season to be healthy

Q: I’m going on a week-long vacation to somewhere warm and tropical with my kids and grandkids. What do we need to do to stay healthy, and how can we be prepared in case one of us does get sick?

A: December is one of the busiest travel months for Canadians; and while trip preparations include booking flights, hotels and packing, it’s even more important to be prepared when it comes to your health.

Prescription preparedness
Before you go away, it’s important to make sure that both your routine and travel immunizations are up to date. Some vaccines need to be given using multiple doses with weeks in between, so make sure to ask your healthcare provider well in advance. Some immunizations also become less effective as you age, so inquire many weeks before you leave to ensure you’re still protected. Depending on the destination, you may also need to take oral antibiotic medications for prevention of certain diseases.

If you or any of your family members are taking prescription medicine, fill your prescription before you leave to ensure you have enough for your whole trip – it may be difficult to find your medication abroad. It’s also important to pack your medications in clearly-labeled bottles in your carry-on luggage, and bring copies of your prescription, including the generic names of medications, in case you’re questioned at the border. I also suggest leaving a copy of your prescriptions at home with a friend or relative that you can call if needed.

A mobile medicine cabinet
It may also be difficult to find some of the over-the-counter (OTC) remedies you’re used to finding at home while on vacation at a resort or remote location, so I suggest packing a mini-OTC medication kit to take with you in your carry-on bag.

Over-the-counter medications for your travel kit may include: antihistamines (even if you are not normally allergic, as you may encounter different insects and/or plants while on vacation), decongestants, anti-motion sickness medications, anti-fever/pain medications, cough suppressants, cough drops, antacids, and/or antifungal/antibacterial creams or ointments. Be sure to keep these medications in their clearly-labelled packages.

To protect yourself from the elements, pack a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, insect repellant, antibacterial wipes, and basic first-aid supplies, such as bandages and tweezers.

Travelling abroad
If your vacation is taking you somewhere exotic, there are a number of things you can do to avoid catching a food-borne illness, including eating cooked food rather than raw, eating at sit-down restaurants rather than at food stands, eating fruit with a peel rather than an edible skin, and by washing your hands before each meal. Avoid drinking tap water – drink bottled water instead – and ask for drinks without ice.

Be sure to have an anti-diarrheal medication with you (e.g., a brand that contains loperamide or bismuth subsalicylate). Some can be taken for prevention rather than treatment but be aware that these medications are not appropriate for all types of diarrhea so consult your pharmacist first.

ASK THE PHARMACIST is an information series produced for by the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association. Questions are submitted to, and answered by, one or more members of the Association. Please submit your question by email to [email protected].

For more information about the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association, and the growing role pharmacists are playing in the health care system, visit

Note: All answers are intended to provide general guidance on health questions, and are not intended to provide diagnosis of specific medical conditions or recommendations for treatment, or to substitute for medical advice or treatment.

Photo © Grady Reese

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