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How to travel with medications

Many travellers carry their medications while moving across international borders to treat chronic or serious health problems. However, each country has its own guidelines about which medicine is legal.

Medicines that are commonly prescribed or available over the counter in some countries could be considered illegal or controlled in other countries. For example, in Japan, drugs containing Codeine are not allowed.  Some inhalers and certain allergy and sinus medications are also illegal such ones containing pseudoephedrine as found in Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhalers.

Adderall is a drug containing stimulants and used in treatment of attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Though it is widely prescribed in the US, it cannot be imported into Japan, even when accompanied by customs declaration and a copy of the prescription. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has strict narcotics laws that have landed many travellers in prison. While rules vary from country to country, there can be serious consequences if you violate the laws of the country you are visiting.

The consequences can range from confiscation of your medications, which could harm your treatment, to stiff penalties, including imprisonment on charges for drug trafficking. To avoid medicine-related problems during travel, follow these tips:

Before You Go: Check with the Embassy of the country you will be visiting or passing through to make sure your medicines are permitted in that country. Be aware that many countries only allow taking a 30-day supply of certain medications and require the traveller to carry a prescription or a medical certificate.

If your medicine is banned at your destination, talk with your health care provider about alternative medicine or destination options, and have your doctor write a letter describing your condition and the treatment plan. The International Narcotics Board (INCB) provides general information about country regulations for travellers carrying medicines that are made with controlled substances. It’s important to note that INCB may not have information from all countries or territories.

Review the State Department’s Country Specific Information for your destination and contact the Embassy to ensure your medications are not considered illegal under local laws. For more specifics about your destination, read the “Traveller’s Health Information available on the Centre for Disease Control website.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes has the “Guidelines for National Regulations Concerning Travelers under Treatment with Internationally Controlled Drugs”.

Buy your medicine before you travel. Don’t plan on being able to buy your medicines at your destination. They may not be available, and if they are, they may not be of good quality and standards. In many countries, counterfeit drugs are a big problem. If you must buy drugs during your trip in an emergency, there are ways to reduce your chances of buying counterfeit drugs: Contact the nearest Embassy or Consulate of your native country. They should be able to connect you with doctors and pharmacies that can help you find reliable, quality medicines. Buy medicines only from licensed pharmacies and get a receipt. Do not buy medicines from open markets.

Ask the pharmacist whether the drug has the same active ingredient as the one you were taking. Make sure the medicine is in its original packaging. Look closely at the packaging. Sometimes poor-quality printing or otherwise strange-looking packaging will indicate a counterfeit product.

Make an appointment with a travel medicine specialist or your health care provider to get needed vaccines and medicines at least 4 to 6 weeks before you leave. If you plan to be gone for more than 30 days, talk to your doctor about how you can get enough medicine for your trip.

Sometimes insurance companies will pay for only a 30-day supply at a time. Ask your doctor about any changes to taking your medicine once you’re in a different time zone. Medicines should be taken according to the time since your last dose, not the local time of day. Ask how to safely store medicine and check whether it needs refrigeration.

Keep in mind that extreme temperatures can reduce the effectiveness of many medicines. Also consult with your physician to identify your healthcare needs at your destination. It is advised to research the environmental conditions like altitude, air pollution and humidity at your destination that may contribute to your specific health concerns. Find out the availability and standards of care in your destination before you travel.

Pack smart and put your medicines in your carry-on luggage: You don’t want to be stuck without them if your suitcase gets lost! The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has made a “Park Smart List” which includes routine and special prescription medications, over the counter medications.

 You can visit the website to know what medications to pack. Bring enough medicine to last your whole trip, plus a little extra in case of delays. Keep medicines in their original, labelled containers. Ensure that they are clearly labelled with your full passport name, doctor’s name, generic and brand name, and exact dosage. Bring copies of all prescriptions, including the generic names for medicines.

 Leave a copy of your prescriptions at home with a friend or relative in case you lose your copy or need an emergency refill. Pack a note on letterhead stationery from the prescribing doctor (preferably translated into the language understood at your destination) for controlled substances, such as marijuana, and injectable medicines, such as EpiPens and insulin. Bring extras of any medical necessities you need like contact lenses or glasses. You might want to pack a pair in both your carry-on bag and your checked luggage.

Be prepared for the unexpected: Leave emergency contact information and copies of your passport biographic page and prescriptions with trusted friends and families. Carry emergency contact information for your family when you travel. Learn the contact information for the nearest embassy of your country. Wear a medical alert bracelet and carry a letter from your doctor if you have allergies to certain medications, foods, insect bites or other unique medical problems.


Adeniyi Bukola, Consultant Family Physician and Travel Medicine Physician

Q –Life Family Clinic

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