15 essential items for your medicine cabinet

If spring cleaning didn’t have you nosing through your medicine cabinet here’s a little extra motivation: Experts recommend having certain supplies on hand to be ready for anything — whether it’s a minor illness or an emergency.

Not sure where to start? Here are some essential supplies you should have on hand:

Extra doses of prescription medications: If you couldn’t get to the store or if the pharmacy was closed due to unforeseen circumstances, would you have enough of your required medications to get you through? Avoid letting your prescriptions run too low, and talk to your doctor about having a little extra on hand.

Extra special needs items: In the event of a natural disaster, power outage or disease outbreak the supply of certain items could be disrupted even if stores remain open. Your emergency kit should include any necessary items like infant formula, an Epi-pen, glucose or blood-pressure monitoring equipment and any equipment needed for a person with a disability. Don’t overlook the small stuff that could be difficult to live without — like hearing aid batteries, denture needs and extra eye glasses.

Stomach remedies: Anti-diarrheal and anti-nausea medications (antiemetics) will come in handy if a flu bug or food poisoning hits and you can’t get to the store. Antacids and treatments for indigestion or gas can also provide relief following an overindulgence or celebration.

Fluids with electrolytes can help replenish minerals like sodium and potassium that get lost due to nausea, vomiting or excessive sweating. Dehydration in adults can usually be treated by drinking water, but children may require a pre-formulated oral rehydration solution. In a pinch, you can make your own — see the Mayo Clinic for more information.

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and/or acetylsalicylic acid (ASA): All three of these medications can help alleviate pain but more importantly they can help bring down a fever. Acetaminophen is a must if there are children around, and it’s a good idea to have ASA as well in the event of a heart attack. ASA and ibuprofen can also reduce inflammation due to a sprain or arthritis.

Anti-histamines: Even if you don’t suffer from allergies or hay fever, antihistamines should be part of your medicine cabinet to help deal with mild allergic reactions and those itchy insect bites. If you’re buying oral anti-histamines (in pill form) be aware that they can cause drowsiness. For persistent allergies, talk to your doctor about prescription versions instead — they often have fewer side effects.

First aid kit: It’s an essential item for home, work, camping and the car, and you can buy them in different sizes from most retailers and from St. John’s Ambulance or the Red Cross. Once you’ve got one, it’s important to check periodically to make sure the products are still good.

If you’re assembling your own, you’ll need some basic supplies like bandages in a variety of sizes, gauze, adhesive clothe tape, scissors, tweezers, gloves, antiseptic and eye wash. For the car or boat additional items like a blanket and instant cold compress will come in handy too. (See the Red Cross’s Anatomy of a First Aid Kit for a complete list).

Antibiotic cream or ointment: It will help speed healing, prevent infection and treat cuts and burns — but it’s also one of the products in your first aid kit that’s likely to expire if it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. Make sure you have a fresh tube or bottle with your other supplies.

Thermometer: Most families have one, but people who have recently moved out on their own might need to fill this gap in their medicine cabinet. Which one you choose will depend on your needs, whether it’s a multi-purpose thermometer (for under the tongue or arm, or rectal use) or one that takes the temperature through the ear. New digital thermometers are easy to read, and some even let you know when it’s time to take them out.

Soap and cleansing agents: Soap is one item you definitely don’t want to run out of if you’re stuck in your home for a few days — especially since frequent hand washing is an important way to prevent the spread of viruses. Remember, it’s the scrubbing action and rinsing that will kill the viruses so antibacterial soap isn’t always necessary. Hand sanitizer works well for situations where you can’t wash your hands.

Some sources also recommend products to disinfect surfaces — but that doesn’t mean you have to stock up on cleaners. Hydrogen peroxide is an approved sanitizer and can be used on many household surfaces as well as to clean wounds.

Protective measures: Gloves are an essential item for protection, whether it’s from chemicals or bodily fluids. (If a member of your household has an allergy to latex, opt for non-latex gloves instead to avoid any danger).

Many people are also adding surgical masks to their preparedness kits, though there is still some debate as to how effective they are in the event of an outbreak.

And depending on your situation, consider adding a box of condoms to your shopping list (even if pregnancy isn’t a worry). Condoms will provide protection against sexually transmitted illnesses – a heath issue that affects baby boomers and seniors too.

Emergency health information: When an emergency happens, you may need to provide key information to emergency workers or quickly get in touch with work or school. You’ll want to have this information at your finger tips when it’s needed. The Public Health Agency of Canada has a Family Emergency Health Information Sheet you can download and fill out that includes essential information like blood type, medical conditions, medications, allergies and emergency contact numbers.

In addition, you may also want to document any additional health care providers or services — like a dentist, eye doctor, public health hotline or poison control centre. Experts recommend keeping any essential paperwork like this in a fire- and water-proof container.

Emergency instructions: Do you know what to do when something goes wrong? While there’s plenty of first aid information available online, in an emergency you won’t have time to look it up. Experts recommend keeping a first aid instruction book with your supplies (if one doesn’t come with your first aid kit).

In addition, you may also want to include instructions for any known risks or issues. For example, the Heart and Stroke Foundation has an Emergency Wallet Card or Emergency signs, signals, actions – for life brochure that outlines the warning signs of heart attacks, cardiac and stroke — and how you should respond in an emergency.

Sanitary products: Depending on your family’s needs, make sure you have extra tissue, toilet paper, sanitary napkins and tampons, cotton balls, diapers and paper towels.

Sunscreen: It’s not necessary for an emergency, but it will help to prevent sunburns and skin cancer. Look for an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15, and make sure the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. (For more information, see Choose a sunscreen that’s right for you).

Insect repellent: Mosquitoes and ticks aren’t just a nuisance — they can carry diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease. Whether you’re working in the garden, enjoying an evening outdoors or heading off for a weekend of camping, you’ll want to keep a bottle around.

Look for the Pest Control Product (PCP) registration number on the label to make sure you’re choosing a product approved by Health Canada. Avoid any products that say “insecticides”, and apply with caution. (For more information, see Health Canada’s Insect Repellent page).

Before you hit the stores, take a few minutes to take stock of what you already have. Be sure to check the expiry date on any medications — including over-the-counter remedies, vitamins, prescriptions and hygiene products. To help with the budget, try picking up a few items each week, and watch for sales and coupons too.

And some safety advice as you stock those shelves: Make sure products stay in their original packages so they are clearly labelled and easily to identify — and include instructions for safe use (like dosage). Be sure to keep products out of reach of children, like in a locked drawer or closet — and try to keep your “medicine cabinet” out of the bathroom where heat and humidity can do damage.

Sources: Red Cross, National Health Service (NHS), Public Health Agency of Canada, Getprepared.ca

What’s in your medicine cabinet that we didn’t mention? Tell us in the comments .

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Hanquan Chen