Tips for travelling with your medications

You’ve had your immunizations and purchased your travel insurance. All you need to do is throw your pills in your bag and you’re ready to go, right?

Not so fast… Did you know you can be detained for attempting to bring certain over-the-counter medications into Japan? Or that some readily available medications in Canada require a prescription elsewhere?  Are you risking access to essential prescription meds if your luggage goes missing?

It can be tricky travelling with prescription medications, over-the-counter treatments and supplements — but the last thing you want to do is endanger your health or risk arrest. We’ve got some tips to help.

Do your research. Is the medication or supplement legal to bring into the country?  How much can you legally import? Do you need a prescription or a permit? Most of the time, you shouldn’t face problems with commonly used medications. Contact your country’s embassy or consulate at your destinations well before your trip to find out the requirements. (You can find their phone numbers and email address online.)

Don’t forget to include any countries through which you are travelling, even if you aren’t leaving the airport. There have been cases where travellers have had problems making connecting flights.

Talk to your doctor about your dosage. If you take medication at certain times of day, travelling across time zones can throw off your schedule. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan to compensate.

Carry a copy of the original prescription with you. Experts warn you should expect scrutiny at security check points and border crossings. The copy of your prescription should include your full name, address, reason for use, dosage and both the brand name and generic name. You may be asked to show this copy to officials, and it may come in handy if you lose your medications.

Get the details in writing. A copy of your prescription may not be enough in some strict countries. Experts also recommend carrying a doctor’s note explaining why you need the medication — especially if you’re travelling with controlled substances like narcotic pain medications or with medical devices.

You’ll also want to carry a list of all the medications you are bringing — just in case you need to replace them. If you’re carrying emergency medications, you should also include instructions on how you should be treated in a crisis.

Keep everything in its original container. Are you carrying medication in a daily dose container or doubled up in one bottle to save space? Beware that these strategies are red flags for security officials. Be sure to keep everything in its clearly labelled, original packaging — even supplements.

Bring extra. You never know if you’ll be delayed and if your medication will be available at your destination. Medications with the same or similar sounding names can contain different ingredients and may not be as effective or safe. Experts recommend packing at least a few days worth of medication, just in case.

However, don’t try to take too much — countries have import limits too. In many cases, you can bring a month’s supply without needing a special permit. (Your embassy can advise you.)

Pack essentials in your carry on bag. Checked luggage can be lost or stolen — and you don’t want your medications to meet the same fate. Experts say to keep your supply with you and pack a back-up in your checked baggage if you feel it’s necessary.

Look into security regulations. Want to fly with a tube of cream, gel or liquids that exceed the 100 mL (3.4 oz) rule? Don’t worry — “medically necessary” liquids, gels and aerosols are exceptions. Be sure to pack them separately and declare them at security check points. Your bags may require additional screening, and don’t forget your documentation!

What about syringes and biojectors? They’re permitted in carry on bags provided the safety guards are on, you have the medication with you, everything is properly labelled and you have the proper documentation.  The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has a full list of What to Pack (see the Medical section.)

Request special screening. If you’re worried about your medications and devices going through an x-ray machine, you can request a visual screening at some airports. Be sure to ask before the screening process starts, and be ready to unpack, handle and repack your items. ( explains the process in How to Take Medication through Airport Security.)

Inform your airline. You can travel with medical equipment such as medical oxygen or battery-powered equipment. It’s the traveller’s responsibility to let the airline know at least 48-72 hours in advance, depending on the destination.

Take note that you’ll need to arrive at the airport extra early, and you may be required to have a companion with you if you can’t manage your medications or equipment on your own.

Avoid trying anything new on your trip, if possible. Tempted to try a sleeping pill for the flight or a different motion sickness medication? Experts warn not to try anything new on your trip if you aren’t sure how you’ll react to it.

As always, steer clear of illegal drugs or black market medications. Many countries have unforgiving penalties for people caught for drug-related offenses. Your government’s representatives can help you find a lawyer, but they can’t help you avoid the consequences.

Beware of side effects. Some medications you need to use on holidays can have side effects such as increasing your chances of getting sunburn. Some medications like anti-malarials can cause blurry vision or nausea too. Be sure to take the appropriate precautions if you’re feeling “off” — such as not driving and staying safe in the sun.

Be careful what you bring home. If you purchase medications or supplements on your trip, make sure they’re legal to bring home. Just because it’s readily available and legal in one country doesn’t mean it’s okay here. (Like khat — a leafy recreational drug that’s legal in the U.K. but not in Canada.)

Know whom to call if you need to replace your medications. You should be able to call your travel insurance provider for help — he or she can then contact the right people on your behalf and advise you what to do next. Otherwise, call your embassy for help navigating the local health system.

One final word of advice: expect strict rules. No matter what your age or abilities, experts warn not to count on exceptions. (Security officials aren’t known for their leniency, after all.) At best, your medications could be confiscated — at worst, you could be detained.

Most of the time, you shouldn’t have a problem travelling with prescriptions, supplements or over-the-counter medications. Keep in mind that the rules and advice depend on your destination, so it pays to “know before you go” to avoid any trouble. Remember to do your research, pack smart and be prepared for scrutiny.

For more information on travelling with medications, visit Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additional sources: airline websites, Public Health Agency of Canada, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border protection, U.S. State Department Consular Affairs, U.S. Travel Insurance Association

Photo ©S.Lamothe

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