Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Maintaining Your Kit

Since medications expire, you’ll need to maintain a first aid kit that contains them more often than a kit that doesn’t.

If they are not regularly checked and replaced, you run the risk of a drug not working properly when it’s needed.

To help you remember, get into the habit of checking the first aid kit when you replace the batteries in your smoke alarms. (A good rule of thumb? Check both twice a year.)

Or you can do it when you set your clocks back and ahead during daylight savings time.

Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Important Considerations

When stocking and using a first aid kit, keep these things in mind.

Combination Drugs

Combination drugs are those that treat more than one symptom. These medications usually have more than one active ingredient.

Examples of combination drugs include:

  • Pain relievers combined with cough suppressants, decongestants, and antihistamines
  • Pain relievers combined with sleep aids
  • Acetaminophen combined with aspirin and caffeine
  • Ibuprofen combined with pseudoephedrine
  • Decongestant combined with analgesic
  • Decongestant combined with an antihistamine

It’s generally best to leave these out of a first aid kit, favoring options that have only a single active ingredient.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Expiration dates: Combination drugs only last as long as the drug that expires first. If two drugs with different shelf lives are combined, they’ll expire together when the first is past its prime. If you purchase the two drugs separately, you’ll only have to replace one when the expiration date comes.
  • Single drugs are cheaper: Combination drugs are also less likely to be sold as generics, which are a proven way to get cheaper medications. In addition, milligram for milligram, combination drugs are almost always more expensive than singles.
  • Take only what you need: You don’t always want all the effects of a combination drug. For example, if you need a drug for fever and all you have is a drug that combines a fever-reducer with an antihistamine, you may end up feeling drowsy when you didn’t need to. Stocking singles means you can combine them when necessary or take them individually.

Drug-to-Drug Interactions

There are certain drugs you should never take together due to the risk of adverse effects. This consideration is especially important for people who take medication regularly.

For instance, drug-to-drug interactions can occur between NSAIDs and other medications, such as:

  • Aspirin
  • Antihypertensives, used to treat high blood pressure
  • Antidepressants, used to treat depression and other conditions
  • Antirheumatics, used to treat certain inflammatory diseases
  • Chemotherapy
  • Corticosteroids, used to treat asthma, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and other conditions
  • Some herbal remedies, such as St. John’s Wort and Ginkgo biloba
Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Nausea and Stomach Upset

Motion sickness and stomach upset are common when traveling. Therefore, travel first aid kits often contain medication for nausea and diarrhea.


Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) is the most common OTC nausea medication. It’s used primarily to combat motion sickness.

Dimenhydrinate causes drowsiness, but it is OK to use in kids as young as 2 years old.


The newest nausea medication to be approved for sale OTC, meclizine has long been used as a prescription for vertigo (a spinning/off-balance sensation).

However, it is also useful for non-medical causes of motion sickness, like rocking boats or turbulent airplanes.

Meclizine’s more recent past as a prescription-only nausea medication means it may be more expensive than dimenhydrinate. In addition, meclizine is not for use in kids under 12.


Imodium (loperamide) is the active ingredient in almost all anti-diarrhea medications on the market.

Since unfamiliar organisms in food and water can cause travelers to develop some gastric upset (known as traveler’s diarrhea), you may want to consider packing anti-diarrhea medications in travel first aid kits.


Strange germs or changes in diet can also lead to stomach upset and heartburn. Therefore, antacids might also be a good idea for a travel first aid kit.

Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Allergy Medication

Allergies are common and can be especially bothersome when traveling, as you may be exposed to triggers that are out of the ordinary.

Having allergy medications in your kit may mean the difference between an enjoyable day away and one filled with watery eyes and sneezing.

Lotions are also available to treat itching from plants or other skin irritants.


Considered the gold standard of allergy medications, Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is an antihistamine that relieves all types of allergic reactions. It’s also sometimes used after epinephrine (see below) when treating anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction.

The biggest side effect of diphenhydramine is drowsiness. In fact, this side effect is so common that diphenhydramine is also used as a sleep aid.

In addition, some people use the medication off-label to treat nausea. The problem with using diphenhydramine as a nausea medication is the same as using it for allergies: it causes drowsiness.

Diphenhydramine is also available as a cream, often combined with calamine lotion. You can use it on bug bites, poison oak, and poison ivy. This form should not make you drowsy.


Claritin (loratadine) may be a better option, as it doesn’t cause you to feel tired.

However, it is usually more expensive than diphenhydramine.


An EpiPen (epinephrine auto-injector) is used to treat severe allergic reactions.

If you are at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction, either because you’ve had one in the past or you have an allergy to something that increases your risk of this reaction, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe an EpiPen for emergencies.

While you or your family member likely know where you keep your EpiPen, it’s also a good idea to keep an extra in your first aid kit. That way, there is always one in an obvious, central location where it can be found quickly and easily.

Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Ointments and Creams

Topical medications are commonly included in first aid kits. These can be helpful for wounds and skin reactions.

Antibacterial Ointment

Neosporin (a triple antibiotic) and bacitracin (single antibiotic) are topical treatments that can be applied directly to wounds to help prevent an infection.

However, these medications are not always indicated for every wound, and overuse can contribute to antibiotic resistance—when bacteria figure out a way to evade medications to the point they are not longer effective.

As such, these ointments should be used sparingly.

Hydrocortisone Cream

Hydrocortisone is a topical corticosteroid used to treat skin swelling and itching. This may come in handy for:

  • Insect bites and stings
  • Allergic skin rashes
  • Poison ivy and poison oak rashes
Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers and fever reducers are the most basic drugs to put in a first aid kit. These drugs provide relief for many minor aches, pains, and illnesses.

Three kinds of pain relievers are often used in first aid kits:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Topical anesthetic (for example, a sunburn reliever spray)

NSAIDs and acetaminophen can also reduce fevers. However, all have distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Most pain relievers come in tablets, capsules, chewable, and liquid formulas. Tablets are a good staple to have on-hand for adults, but also be sure to include formulas like chewable or liquids for children (if you expect to treat kids).

In addition, medication dispensers that allow you to give proper doses of liquid medication from a syringe or suction device may be a good idea for babies or small children.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are available as OTC drugs and can relieve pain and reduce fevers. However, NSAIDs can cause gastric upset in some people.

  • Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) is generally considered the safest of the three for all ages. It relieves muscle aches and pains and reduces fever.
  • Aleve (naproxen) is very tough on the stomach, but it is a strong pain reliever that lasts for 12 hours.
  • Aspirin thins the blood and may cause bleeding problems.


Tylenol (aceetaminophen) reduces pain and fever without reducing inflammation. Unfortunately, that means it does not really help with swelling or redness caused by injury.

Acetaminophen has also been shown to be hard on the liver.

Benzocaine or Lidocaine

Benzocaine and lidocaine are topical anesthetics (pain relievers applied to the body) that cause numbing and reduce pain. They may be useful for the quick treatment of minor scrapes, toothaches, and bug bites.

For example, Orajel is a benzocaine product that is applied inside of the mouth to ease oral pain. Aspercreme is a lidocaine product that is applied directly to the skin to reduce muscle ache.

These drugs do nothing to reduce inflammation or fever, and their effects usually do not last very long. They can easily wash off with water.

Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

Factors to Consider

Whether or not you want medication in your first aid kit depends on how you plan to use it.

Considering the purpose of the kit may help you determine whether medications are appropriate.

Where Will the Kit Be Used?

Where the kit will be used can help you determine what items to place in the kit.

For example, if your kit will primarily be used at home, it may not make sense to include medication, since the medicine cabinet may be just as easily accessible.

If you plan to store the kit in your car, stocking it with medication may not be a good idea, as they may be exposed to extreme temperatures that may end up making them unusable.

On the other hand, if your kit will be used on a sports field, in a group setting like an extracurricular club, camping, or in a place of business, having some medications on hand for injuries or other emergencies may be useful.

Likewise, you may also want pain relievers, fever reducers, and other drugs on-hand if your kit is used for travel, in case a family member becomes unexpectedly ill and you cannot find what you need where you are staying.

Who Has Access?

If adults in your family are the only ones who use the kit, including medications is no concern.

However, if children and teens also use the kit, you may want to leave medications out or be more choosey about those you include.

You can also stock the kit as you wish, but place it out of reach of small hands or in a locked box that only grown-ups can open.

You may also make different decisions about what you put in a family-only kit vs. a kit you share with others.

Legal Considerations

This is mainly due to liability concerns. There could be some legal issues if someone outside of your family uses a medication from your kit inappropriately or has an adverse reaction to one.

For example, you may want to include aspirin in a first aid kit because it can help save someone’s life if given in the earliest stages of a heart attack by inhibiting the growth of a blood clot and reducing the damage to your heart. If only adults use your kit, adding aspirin may be OK.

But aspirin should not be given to a child without a doctor’s OK due to the potential for a rare, but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome. (Children who develop Reye’s often have a viral illness first, but that could be something as simple as the common cold.)

If the kit is meant for kids and adults, it’s easy to see how a child could receive aspirin mistakenly.

Be sure to consult with a lawyer and check the laws in your state before including them in a kit used outside of your immediate household. Often, places of business and organizations already have rules about this in place, so managers may be able to provide this information easily.

Of course, you can mitigate the potential for this entirely by asking people to carry whatever medications they may need with them.

Selecting appropriate medications for first aid kits

How to Stock First Aid Kit Medications

Deciding what medications to put in a first aid kit, if any, tends to be a bit harder than stocking standard supplies like gauze and bandages.

What are you likely to need? Will you use it before it expires? Is it something that is safe for everyone who uses the kit to have access to?

Medications that people sometimes keep in first aid kits include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Antihistamines (allergy medications)
  • Antidiarrheals

Not all of these may be appropriate for your needs or situation.

This article explains the purpose of first aid kits, things to keep in mind as you consider stocking them with medications, and common medications people include.

Social aid for elderly person Senior woman with her carer.