A little disclaimer: I do mention a few specific medications and products in this list; please remember that this list comes from my personal experience only, and that you shouldn't take any medication without talking to your doctor first, and that I'm not a health professional or qualified to make direct recommendations in any way. This is just what I've found to be useful.
This is written from the perspective of an American abroad, but if you're traveling to the US a lot of the information could still come in handy.
- Something I always mean to do but forget: Take a multivitamin or at least a vitamin C pill starting at least a week before the trip, so that it can build up in the immune system. Travel weakens your immune system (between the stress, crappy airline food, close quarters, and the not sleeping), and trains, planes, taxis, and airports are basically giant petri dishes.
- Wash and sanitize your hands frequently to prevent illness, especially in unfamiliar places where you haven't had a chance to build up an immunity to the local bugs (what is considered the common cold in Florence always knocks me flat on my back. Don't assume that "the flu" is the same thing everywhere, because trust me, it ain't).
- Airport friendly, multifunction first aide kit: hand sanitizer (travel size), band aides, antibiotic cream (3 oz tube or smaller), ibprophen, and, in my case, Midol (you really don't want me to travel without it, trust me). I've never had any problems with this kit passing airline inspection. The hand sanitizer (especially if it's the spray-on kind) is basically pure alcohol so if I get a cut, say, putting my suitcase in the luggage rack on the train, I can disinfect it, put on the antibiotic barrier, and put a bandage on it. Yes, the hand sanitizer stings like a bitch but it gets the job done.
I like the anti-inflammatory properties of ibprophen over other OTC pain killers, but that's my preference. If you can't take it, don't bring it, and again, consult your doctor.
- If I'm going abroad, I'll take my allergy medicines regardless of the season, since you never know how foreign pollen or changes in latitude will affect you. I also take one before I get on the plane because my ears don't pop and this helps with the pressure (but that's a subject for a different post). I've also learned to bring at least one or two doses of my preferred cold medicine with me (see #2).
- Keep all medicines in their original containers (even OTC meds and vitamins) or print off the drug facts from the manufacturers website website. That way, if you run out of say, DayQuil (as I did) you can just hand the page to the pharmacist and they'll be able to find a suitable substitute. This usually works, even if you don't speak the same language. If you need a prescription, though, I'd talk to a doctor (see below).
- Most guidebooks have a quick-ref in the back on how to say words like "doctor", "headache," or "vomit." Take it with you, just in case the specific medication you're looking for isn't available in the country your visiting. It is my experience that EU pharmacists are more helpful than American ones when it comes to recommending products for colds and every day ailments--so long as you at least attempt to speak their native tongue. Usually if you can at least describe your symptoms, they can tell you what's wrong and what might help.
- Most hotel or hostel (or university, if you're studying abroad) front desks can provide you with a list of the nearest English language pharmacies, doctors, and hospitals upon request. You can also check with tourism offices, as they sometimes are linked to clinics that offer low-cost services to travelers, even if uninsured.
- Lastly, don't overdo it. Relax. You're on vacation. Give yourself time to recover from strenuous activity.
I'm going to go take my own advice and lay down for a little bit. Happy trails!