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11 Essential OTC Medications to Include in Your Emergency Kit


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First aid kits come in various sizes, from compact versions that can slip into your purse to more extensive kits suitable for large toolboxes. When assembling the contents of your first aid kit, it’s essential to prioritize over-the-counter (OTC) medications that address a wide range of common ailments.

These OTC medicines tend to be among the first items to vanish from store shelves during emergencies. In this article, we’ll explore the top 11 OTC medicines that should be a staple in your emergency supplies, everyday carry, and bug-out bags.

OTC medicines on shelf

11 Essential Over-the-Counter Medicines

1. Aspirin

For adults, include aspirin in your bag. The pain relief aside, this is excellent for things like:

  • fever reduction
  • muscle aches
  • toothaches
  • common cold
  • headaches
  • thinning the blood

Aspirin (NOT acetaminophen) can help someone recover from a heart attack or prevent future ones!

Warning about Children and Aspirin

Aspirin and aspirin-containing products come with plenty of warnings about using them with children. Per the Mayo Clinic, “Aspirin has been linked with Reye’s syndrome, so use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers for fever or pain. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 3, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin.”

And in fact, some children’s hospitals do not recommend using it for children under 16 (unless instructed by a doctor). Therefore, acetaminophen should be included with pain relievers.

Always check the Active Ingredients on the label for the presence of aspirin.

2. Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen is inexpensive and is the most commonly used non-prescription medication in history. Used to alleviate pain and reduce fever, it’s effective for various conditions such as headaches, muscle aches, toothaches, and common cold symptoms.

However, caution must be exercised, as excessive use or exceeding the recommended dosage can lead to liver damage. Therefore, always follow the dosing instructions and consult a healthcare professional if unsure.

3. Ibuprofen

Also good for pain relief and reducing inflammation and swelling due to menstrual cycles, arthritis, or other pain caused by inflammation.  It’s a fever reducer much like acetaminophen but some can tolerate ibuprofen better.

Ibuprofen also helps headaches and pain due to the flu and cold. Also, only use in children over 6 months of age. Dosage for children is based on the child’s weight.  This article provides in-depth information about the types of painkillers to include in your emergency kits and prepping supplies.

4. Antacids

In a SHTF situation, people will still get gassy tummies or a lot of acid build-up due to stress and lack of food. Antacids will help with the discomfort and slow damage done to the stomach and the esophagus. Ulcers are sure to form and for those who already have them, they will quickly run out of their prescriptions. Examples for stocking up are Tums, Alka-Seltzer, and Rolaids.

5. Antihistamines and Anti-allergens

Allergies will be even worse after SHTF. People will have to be outside more, if for no other reason than to gather, hunt, and grow food. Without electricity, staying inside may become unbearable in hot weather.

For those in rural areas, once the prescriptions run out, all that will be left are things like Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec. Antihistamines help with the reduction of swelling in the sinuses and assist with overall allergens by blocking the histamines that cause the symptoms. If someone has a severe allergy, remember to include an epi-pen.

6. Bismuth Subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol)

Also known as pink bismuth, this time-tested medicine covers many digestive system issues. Indigestion, nausea, heartburn, gas symptoms and diarrhea are just some of the symptoms this medicine helps relieve. Diarrhea can kill if not taken care of, and one of the most important reasons for having something on hand is to keep yourself hydrated to make up for what you lose. Thankfully, this now comes in a convenient chewable pill form and is easy to carry with you.

7. Cough/Mucus Control

Sinus infections, influenza, allergies, damp conditions, and exposure can lead to being stuffed up, unable to breathe or get the gunk out. Coming in both pill and liquid forms, this medicine has saved many people from a doctor visit (and bill). Other than providing relief for the ones who are ill, it can also help protect those who are not. If those who are sick are coughing a lot, the sickness has a better chance to spread.

Antitussives vs. Expectorants

There are 2 different OTC cough medicines– antitussives and expectorants. Antitussives are a cough suppressant. They block the cough reflex. Some of these are – Triaminic Cold and Cough, Vicks 44 Cold and Cough and Robitussin Cough.

The expectorant thins the mucus and helps makes it easier to clear when you cough. Some of these are – Mucinex and Robitussin Chest Congestion.

8. Laxatives

No one wants to think about this, but you will be eternally grateful for the little pill or chew that will relieve discomfort. When in an emergency situation occurs, what kinds of foods and how much or how often can result in constipation. If left untreated, constipation can kill.

There are 2 types of laxatives. One type draws liquid into the colon and makes it easier to pass waste. These would be Milk of Magnesia, Miralax, Metamucil, Benefiber, and any stool softener. The other type of laxative causes intestinal muscles to contract and help with elimination. These medicines are sold as Dulcolax and Senokot. They can also be taken as a suppository.

9. Sleep Aides

In any major upset in your life, sleepless nights are often a side effect of the stress. Many people have trouble with, “turning their brain off,” so they can sleep. I would imagine that cases of insomnia will rise exponentially and in a post-disaster scenario, sleep will be more important than ever before. Your ability to make decisions and good judgments will be hindered by a prolonged lack of sleep.

A sedating antihistamine is what you see in most OTC medicine. The name brand of these is Benadryl, Aleve PM and Unisom Sleep Tabs. Also consider natural remedies, such as Melatonin, Valerian or lavender essential oil.

10. Saline Spray/Solution

Saline solution is another wonderful thing to have with you. Even a small bottle could save someone from infections or aid in another way. They are sold as a decongestant, saltwater solution or steroid.  I am all for having versatile resources that have more than one use.

Saline solution can help with wound irrigation, eye and sinus flushing, and of course cleaning your contact lenses. Some studies show that saline restores moisture to dry nasal passages and sinuses, and curbs inflammation of mucous membranes.

11. Vitamins

SO MANY people overlook simple vitamins when talking about medicinal items to store and carry for emergencies. In my opinion, vitamins are more important than any of the other things listed here. In a post-disaster scenario, everyone who did not prepare will be suffering from a ‘lack.’ A lack of food, perhaps clean water, sanitation, and assuredly a vitamin deficiency will be all too common.

Your body needs vitamins and minerals to function normally. Your immune system will be fighting off bacteria and viruses at a higher rate, particularly in urban settings, and will need extra nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to help with the process. When it finds none, it will attack the muscles or other organs to get what it needs.

Curious about possible alternative to these OTCs? Learn more about what a natural first aid kit looks like.

All of the above are easily bought over the counter without a prescription. Before you go out on a buying spree, though, take a look at your medicine cabinet and pull out all of the stuff stashed in there. Check expiration dates and keep them rotated.

Other Useful OTC Medicines

Here are a few more handy OTC meds/remedies to have on hand.

  • Mineral Oil
  • Epsom’s Salts
  • Bacitracin
  • Neosporin
  • Alcohol
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Witch Hazel
  • Contact Lens Solution
  • Nasal Spray, Afrin,
  • Primatene Mist
  • Robitussin
  • Zantac/Ranitidine
  • Fiber like Metamucil & Benefiber
  • A hoard of organic-natural (i.e. never “Centrum”!) multi/B-vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Pedialyte
  • Mag Citrate

Also, consider those who may be coming to you for help and if you are able to, buy a little extra for trade or barter. A bottle of 500 ibuprofen pills is small and easy to pack, not to mention worth a small fortune in a post-disaster situation.

Final Thoughts

NOW is the time to get this checked off your preparedness list when you can consider things in a calm and logical manner. We never know when tough situations might show up. When we collect these important medical things, we’re not just looking out for ourselves. We’re also helping our families and communities.

What medicines do you keep on hand for emergencies?

“This is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any disease. Consult your personal medical professional.”

Originally published April 29, 2014.



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