Good advice for what ails a traveler

Health: A first-aid kit and copies of prescriptions and hospital records may very well prove they're worth carrying along.

February 28, 1999|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Medical preparations for trips to exotic places must include a visit to a doctor or travel clinic for inoculations and advice. But even trips to more conventional places like a spa in California or your cousin's cabin in Colorado should involve gathering items for first aid or other health problems that might arise.

For many, this counsel is redundant. Some of my best friends are hypochondriacs, and I do travel with them. I scoff when they climb aboard with Merck Manuals bulging in their pockets, and a first-aid kit that's the size of a carpenter's toolbox.

If anything goes wrong, that kit is the first thing we rip open: for sealed sterile pads to wipe wounds, small bandages for blisters, something for diarrhea, elastic bandages, instant cold packs and a variety of other items not always easily found, particularly in the back country.

If you are the one forced to carry it, the medical kit should contain the essentials and little more. Liquids weigh a lot, so one-shot containers of antiseptics are just fine. Be sure you have enough rinse for contact lenses. Factory-sealed containers raise fewer questions at customs frontiers than repacked pills or ointments. If a group is going to be together the whole time, a collective kit is a luggage economy. But be sure you have your own extra pair of eyeglasses.

The most important parts of the medical kit for anyone with a chronic condition -- and that means many people over 60 -- are hospital records and extra copies of all prescriptions, written not for trademark names but for generic names, and thus useful in pharmacies everywhere.

Dr. Martin Wolfe counsels the State Department on its employees' travel needs and directs a travel clinic in Washington as well. He says the first priority is gathering information to guide a doctor who may have to treat you for the first time: X-rays or electrocardiograms, for example.

Part of this information-gathering is an examination of health insurance policies and medical evacuation coverage, he says. A record should be made of all essential numbers, with telephone and fax for your primary-care doctor or organization. All this should be in carry-on bags.

* The new edition of "Health Hints for the Tropics," edited by Wolfe and published by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, contains a practical list for a medical kit. Although intended for tropical travel, the list can be amended for all sorts of trips.

The list is particularly helpful in providing generic names for products as well as trade names: for example, dimenhydrinate (Dramamine). Over-the-counter items may be hard to find under U.S. trade names.

Among the nonprescription items listed in the booklet are Ace bandages, tincture of benzoin, dental floss and traveler's dental kit, extra glasses or contact lenses, hearing-aid batteries, thermometer, pocketknife, itch or sunburn medicine, Burow's solution (for skin inflammation), sunscreen, insect repellent, a mosquito net with the repellent permethrin,a water purification device, oral rehydration salts for use in diarrhea, foot powder, analgesics, antiseptics, laxatives, anti-diarrheals, motion-sickness medicine, throat lozen-ges, antihistamines, antacids, infant feeding materials, birth- control devices, multivitamins and a Sawyer extractor pump for snake and insect bites.

* The tropical-medicine group's list does not include two items I consider useful. One is an instant cold pack. These light, 5-by-4-inch plastic packs of ammonium nitrate and water become ice-cold when pounded or massaged. They can be bought in pharmacies or from sports specialty shops.

As Disposable Cold Packs, they are available from Chinook Medical Gear, P.O. Box 1736, Edwards, Colo. 81632, 800-766-1365, which sells three for $3.95 or 10 for $11.95, plus postage. This company has a catalog of kits and individual items. On the Web, the address is www.chinookmed.com.

My other choice qualifies as first aid the same way that parents of young children define "emergency" when they pull up the car in areas marked "emergency parking only." This item is called Brief Relief. It is a zip-shut plastic pouch, with interior funnel, that contains a material that congeals urine to an odorless gel. For obvious reasons, they are favored by winter tent-campers. These are sold in the latest Magellan's catalog in a four-pack for $9.85, plus shipping. Magellan's, 110 West Sola St., Santa Barbara, Calif. 93101; 800-962-4943.

* In addition to the $5 "Health Hints" booklet, which has 54 pages packed with information, the Society of Tropical Medicine has just issued the newest edition of its directory of specialists in tropical medicine, parasites and travelers' health. People preparing for travel who want a reference to a specialist pre- or post-travel can find one here; the names of practitioners and clinics are cross-referenced by state and town.

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