Traveling with Medications

A valid concern when traveling is the thought of  getting sick. But what if you already live with a chronic condition – one that requires you to be continually on medication? Should that prevent you from following your extended travel dreams? Jenny Leonard of Where Is Jenny? shares tips on how she is able to travel long-term while on medication.

[singlepic=1885,350,,,right]I started my location independent graphic design business straight out of college so that I could pursue my dreams in whatever way I wanted to at any given time. For a while it was racing competitive motocross (2000-2003), then it was volunteering in Vanuatu (2006), then backpacking South America (2008-2009), and now I’m going to sell everything I own to travel indefinitely (Jan 2011). My business was less than a year old in 2003 when I was involved in a serious car accident. After several surgeries, procedures, and years of physical therapy I finally found a doctor whom worked closely with me to find a solution. As a result I attend pain management every month and take a cocktail of medications daily (including Schedule II narcotics) to alleviate my symptoms.

Medication and medical care is easy to take care of if you live in one place and see the same doctor every month. It quickly becomes tricky when you hit the road for an extended or open-ended period of time. I’ve found it very difficult to find good information on the web surrounding this topic so I’m going to detail how I’ve addressed traveling around the world for extended periods of time with prescription medication.

The most important link that helps make extended travel even an option for me is my doctor. My doctor understands that the decisions I make in life are mine and that only I can make risk assessment choices, not him. Therefore, he doesn’t sit around and lecture me on how skateboarding will make my injury worse, but rather helps me continue doing an activity that makes me happy. If your doctor is giving you a hard time about what you’re doing in life whether it’s skateboarding or traveling the world, shop around. It took visiting dozens of doctors before I found one that I’m thrilled with. I found many to be traditional, conservative, and judgmental towards my unconventional life. They also didn’t give me the treatment I deserved because of it. The doctor’s job is to support and give you the tools and resources you need to live the life you want to live. Don’t settle for less.

[singlepic=1883,300,,,right]It takes at least 6-months to plan things out with your doctor before departing on an extended trip so be sure to start early. Every month my doctor and I discuss our plan of action that is tailored to my specific condition, lifestyle and Texas state laws. Since the laws surrounding Schedule II narcotics and prescriptions vary from state to state what works for me in Texas might not work everywhere else. In Texas, my doctor is allowed to write a 90-day supply of medication, but with indefinite travel on the horizon I’m eventually going to run out. This is where it becomes very important to have a doctor that is 100% on board with your traveling plans. Try to get your medications from your doctor a few days before departure, this ensures that you have the maximum amount of medication.

There are many things that can go wrong on the road from being stopped by officials to having your medication stolen. It’s important to have the right documents on hand for any situation you may come across.

  1. Have your doctor write a letter on the office letterhead describing your medical condition, patient history (with him), list of prescribed medications (along with generic equivalents), and contact information. Treat this document as if it were your passport. (Scan the letter and e-mail it to yourself should it get lost.) If you get stopped by any officials you have documents stating you’re not a drug trafficker. If your medication runs out then you have the documents needed to get a refills from that country.
  2. Have a list of generic alternatives and alternate names for all of your medications. The names for medications vary according to what country you’re in.
  3. Some medications are outlawed in certain countries. Before you enter ANY country check the embassy to see what medications are considered illegal.
  4. Keep your medication in their original bottles at all times. The only exception to this rule is having a small pill case holding 2-3 days worth of medications to carry with you at all times.
  5. Bring copies of all your prescriptions. Scan them and e-mail to yourself should they get lost.

In order to keep your medication safe on the road there are a few precautions you should keep in mind:

  1. Never put your medication in checked luggage. You never know what could happen to your bags when they are out of your sight. It could get lost or stolen and then you’d be in a real pickle.
  2. Ensure that you keep your medications at the correct temperature. Some medications lose their effectiveness in humid climates.
  3. Try to get more medication than the time you’ll be away. Anything can happen on the road and it’s good to have a cushion.
  4. Use a Pac Safe. Not all hostels have lockers or lockers big enough to hold a backpack. Whenever you have to leave your bag unattended ensure that you lock it up using a pac safe or hostel locker. I’d like to think that backpackers don’t steal from each other but every group has bad apples.
  5. Have a medication fund to use in case of emergency. Should your medication get lost or stolen you’d have money set aside to go to a hospital and pay for the prescription.
  6. Should you be carrying Schedule II prescriptions, keep it a secret as best you can. If you stay in party hostels your medication could be a target for theft if they knew about it. What people don’t know, they don’t go looking for.

Divide your medication into several different groups and put them in different bags and hiding spots. Don’t just put your medication in a pocket. Hide it well within your bag such as inside a pair of socks. With your medication separated should you get pick pocked or someone finds and steals it, they wouldn’t get all of it. It would be a loss, but not a huge one. Then carry a small pill case on you at all times with several days worth of medication on you. Should something happen to your bags and all of your medication is lost, then you’d at
least have a few days to figure things out.

[singlepic=1882,300,,,right]Should you find yourself in another country without your medication immediately go to your embassy. At the embassy you can get information about doctors in town that can treat you and prescribe you the medication you need. If that doctor needs any information ensure that they have a way to contact your home doctor. My doctor gives me his e-mail address, cell phone number, and has staff notified of my travel plans in case of emergency.

Part of my plan during my travels through South America was to have my medication mailed to me. Given the slow Argentinean mail my package didn’t arrive on time and I was left without my medication. I was able to see a doctor, give him my doctor’s letter, a copy of my prescription, and my medication bottles. He was then able to treat me and give me a new prescription for my medication.

Traveling with prescription medications takes some pre-planning, but it shouldn’t keep you from doing something you want to do. Ensure you have a great doctor and he’ll work with you to figure out how to make it all happen. Each time I come into the office my doctor shakes his head and tells me to do it while I’m young… and that I am.

Other comments

12 Comments on "Traveling with Medications"

  1. Tweets that mention Traveling with Medications | Briefcase to Backpack - Travel Advice for Career Breaks or Sabbaticals -- on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 12:17 pm 

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BriefcasetoBackpack, spencerspellman and Shelly Rae Clift, Adam Seper. Adam Seper said: RT @CareerBreakHQs: Don't let a chronic condition stop your RTW dreams. @whereisjenny shares advice on traveling w/ meds […]

  2. Sherry Ott on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 12:32 pm 

    Wow – some excellent advice in here that I had never considered before. Jenny – thanks for sharing with our readers!

  3. Ali on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 12:48 pm 

    Jenny, I’m so glad you wrote this! I have ulcerative colitis which is a chronic digestive disease & I have to take medication every day for it. I know that if/when I hit the road it’s something I’ll have to deal with & plan for but it’s so great to know all the steps you’ve taken to make it happen. Great info!

  4. Christine on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 1:49 pm 

    I had that very same issue (needing medication on the road) and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to get in foreign countries (but not from my doctor in America). See, we traveled for 13 months and at 6 months I thought I would have my American pharmacy just ship another 6 month prescription. I was told they were not going to be able to do it–something about legalities of mailing drugs to foreign countries. Then, I was told to just take my American prescription to the pharmacy and then again was told that I needed to get a prescription from a local doctor. That was the key, so I took my prescription, went to a local doctor, she wrote a new, local prescription and wha-lah! I was set for another 6 months worth (and the best part–they were way cheaper than in America). And, when we were traveling in Asia, we were able to get most anything we wanted without a prescription–it was amazing. The only problem was in Cambodia where a lot of drugs at the pharmacy are fakes.

    I would recommend always having travel insurance–no matter what–get it and have safe travels.

  5. Emily on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 3:34 pm 

    I really, really, really appreciate you writing this article! I have a few health issues that require me to take medication every day, and it has been one major concern for me regarding the idea of long-term travel or a career break. I’ve always wondered how people did it. This helps a lot!

  6. Christy - Ordinary Traveler on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 4:46 pm 

    I’ve wondered how people go about this while they are gone for long periods of time. Great advice!

  7. Gillian on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 6:27 pm 

    Excellent advice Jenny! I have Chrohn’s Disease and recently finished a one year RTW. I did all the things you advice and never had any trouble. I kept all my medication in its original containers, had a note from my doc and didn’t make a big deal of it. Only once was I ever questioned as to what it was and what it was for. It’s important to remember, as you say, that what is legal here in N.America may not be in another country. It doesn’t have to make sense to you – it’s their country and their rules – it’s up to you to be aware!

  8. Jenny on Mon, 11th Oct 2010 6:41 pm 

    Glad everyone has found the article helpful so far. If you have any further questions let me know!

  9. Amy on Tue, 12th Oct 2010 2:27 am 

    These are good tips. Sounds like you have a great doctor! I have migraines for which I take a daily preventative medication as well as the oh-so-important reactive medication when one occurs. Ensuring that I had enough medication was a huge concern of mine before starting my RTW trip and I found there was hardly any information out there on the topic. I am sure this post will be helpful for people. Acquiring (let alone paying for) my prescriptions before I left was a frustrating process. My doctors were unwilling to write me a prescription for a year’s supply, but when I asked them what they suggested as an alternative, they all warned me not to get prescriptions filled abroad! Gee, thanks for your help. The government advises against getting prescriptions filled abroad as well; they warn that other countries do not have the same quality standards as the U.S. and that prescription names could easily confused. Not sure how much truth there is to this, but I wanted to make sure I had enough to cover for the year for another reason. I spent years trying out different drugs, and I was concerned I may not be able to find the precise drugs I was taking in other countries. In the end, a friend of mine who is a doctor was willing to write me prescriptions for the drugs I was already taking so that I would have a 13 month supply. Even though I’m carrying what seems to be a huge amount of drugs, the only country that has even batted an eye in our 6 months of travels so far was Japan, and even then customs just inspected everything thoroughly to make sure they were not narcotics.

  10. How One Text Message, Changed my Life Forever on Mon, 27th Dec 2010 2:24 am 

    […] 50/50 odds good?  My condition is currently manageable with medication, but it takes some scheduling to get what I need especially when traveling overseas. The surgery could eliminate all, some, or […]

  11. Texas City Hotels on Fri, 7th Jan 2011 7:55 am 

    Hey, thanks for the post, really useful information! I must admit I’m the kind who takes medication everywhere I go, especially with my mom being a nurse. So I guess I have my supply no matter what, but still, it’s good to know what to do in case that supply isn’t all that complete or…doesn’t seem legal;)

  12. Jenny on Mon, 10th Jan 2011 4:24 pm 

    Wow, thanks for the post! That was some really useful information. I have to admit the biggest issue I’ve had with travelling comes from having health concerns and a cocktail of medication. I am currently shopping around for a new doctor, have gone through about 4 so far that told me my poor quality of life was “good enough.” But I mean, I’m still young… I want to find a way to still enjoy things I love despite medical issues (though mine aren’t quite so severe).

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