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Are Your Pills Ready for Vacation?

Planning ahead can ensure the safety of medications

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Checking in with your pharmacist is always a good idea before traveling with prescriptions.
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As fun as vacations are , preparing to travel can be stressful. Your clothes and toiletries may be ready and the itinerary set. But if you take prescriptions or over-the-counter (OTC) medications, you will need to complete some additional steps to make sure your drugs are travel-ready. 

For people who have chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, medications may need refrigeration or another form of special storage, especially if they are flying.

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"Any medication that requires refrigeration or requires injection via syringes may need special travel arrangements," Mohamed A. Jalloh, a spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association, tells AARP. "People should let TSA [Transportation Security Administration] agents know that they are taking such medications on the plane and provide proof [a doctor's note or medication label, for example]. However, TSA agents make the final decision whether they allow such items on a plane — but most of the time they do accommodate people."

People should plan to talk with their pharmacists to clarify which medications need refrigeration. While there are many drugs that state they need to be refrigerated, some actually can be stable at room temperature for a period of time, Jalloh says. For those that do, any ice pack should be fine as long as the drug is not in direct contact with the ice pack itself, he adds. Special medication coolers are available, as well as traditional cooler bags.

A comprehensive list of refrigerated medicines is available from Healthcare Ready, a D.C.-based nonprofit. For injectable medications, don't forget to pack a sharps container to dispose of used needles.

What about X-ray machines?

Some travelers may be concerned that baggage X-rays used in airport screenings could hurt their medications. But Jalloh says that is unlikely, even after repeated exposure. "The X-ray machines emit a low radiation that has not consistently shown to affect medications. If it did, most likely the medication would have a warning on its medication label," he says. "If you are truly concerned, you may request a TSA agent to perform the security check by hand."

The TSA website clarifies what special procedures are required to bring medical supplies on the plane and offers a handy search tool to let you see what items are allowed through the checkpoint once they have been screened.

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On the road again

While you might think a car trip will just involve throwing your pills in a bag, it may be more complicated than that. Refrigerated medications will still need special arrangements, and it is important to remember to not leave any medicine — even if it doesn't require refrigeration — in your car when the air-conditioning isn't running. 

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"It can get really hot in the car, [which] makes it easier for the medication to get overheated and no longer work as well," Jalloh says. "A good rule of thumb is to keep them in a temperature-controlled lunch bag if no other options are available."

While medications can be hurt by extreme heat in a car, most medications are fine to carry in bags and purses, even if you are outdoors for a longer period of time. "As long as you are not taking them with you to your spa bath, you should be good," he says. However, bringing along small ice packs for your bags could help if you are concerned about the temperature during a long hike or day at the beach.

Planning ahead

Whether by car or plane, you will likely be staying in a hotel at some point during your trip. For pills that must stay cool, make sure there is a refrigerator in the room or that you have access to an ice machine or ice packs for the duration of your stay.

Prior to any trip, you should reach out to your neighborhood pharmacist to help get your health needs in order, Jalloh says. "We can provide travel medications, travel vaccines, and even do a checkup on their medications before their trip. We can help clarify which medications they definitely need to take or leave at home."

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