By: Karl Neuman, M.D.

You need not be under suspicion of possessing narcotics to be hassled by security and customs inspectors at airports. Families have been hassled for merely carrying everyday, over-the-counter medications, have had the medications confiscated, missed their flights and, very rarely, been detained to explain their “crime.” Moreover, once overseas, obtaining medication for your family is often a maze of confusion. When your children are ill, your treatment may be more problematic than the disease you are treating.

Carry all your family’s medication in one kit for air travel. This makes it simpler for security personnel to check your kids and yourself. If you carry nebulizers, breast pumps and such, have letters from your doctor and get to the airport early. Security personnel must examine each item and call supervisors to look at unusual ones, and are under orders not to rush inspections because your flight is leaving.

Pack more medications than you will need – but not much more. While you don’t want to run out, large supplies make security and customs inspectors edgy. Problems occur if you are staying abroad for prolonged periods and require a large supply. Keep medications in their original containers with intact labels and drug insert pamphlets. Inspectors are not fond of containers filled with a medley of pills and capsules.

The amount of radiation emitted by airport radiation devices is insufficient to damage medications, even if you fly frequently with the same substances.X-rays do not make medications radioactive. Generally, you may request hand inspection of your carry-on bags, including medications. Leave extra time for this.

Airport security regulations change frequently, especially regarding liquid items, the medications children generally take. Presently, in the U.S. and in many other countries, you may carry multiple liquids in quantities up to 3 ounces (90 ml) placed in a quart-size (liter-size), clear plastic, sealable bag.  Medications in volumes larger than 3 oz. are permissible if placed separately and declared verbally or in writing to security personnel. A doctor’s letter explaining the medical need for the substances helps but is not essential.  “Reasonable” quantities expedite security checks. 

Many countries ban specific substances. It is illegal to enter Japan with many over-the-counter items commonly used elsewhere: inhalers and allergy/sinus substances containing the stimulant pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, and Vicks inhalers), for example. Codeine-containing substances and medications to treat hyperactivity are banned by many countries in Asia and travelers have been detained for carrying such items. Check medications with the embassies of countries you plan to visit. Most have websites with complete information.

Buying medications overseas is tricky. For example, the antibiotic doxycycline is known by 50 different names around the world, says This database contains information on medications in 185 countries, listing 40,000 names. Also, many medications have very similar names, in spelling or pronunciation or both. Requesting such items is further complicated when dealing with people who speak other languages. Worse, there are cases where identical names are used for totally dissimilar substances in different countries.  

Familiar items may have different strengths overseas. Even if your medications have the same name and similar packaging as items back home, they may be quite different. A teaspoon of a substance may contain more or less of the active ingredient(s) than you are accustomed to, measuring devices such as droppers may be calibrated differently, and letters at the end of the name may be in a language or alphabet you do not understand.  Such letters may stand for “extra strength” or “time released,” for example, and change potency significantly.

Prescriptions may or may not be filled overseas. In most poor, developing countries prescriptions are generally not necessary for items that require ones at home. In developed countries, pharmacists may not fill foreign prescriptions, requiring that you see a local physician. Some countries (Germany, for example) prohibit the mailing or shipment of medications from overseas so you cannot legally have someone from home mail you what you need.

Medications and herbal substances in developing countries may be suspect. A third or more of the medications bought in local pharmacies in such countries are fake, diluted, outdated, incorrectly labeled, improperly stored, and may even contain toxic substances. Natural and herbal cures are generally not properly tested or standardized (one batch rarely equals another in active ingredients) and are often stored in large open bins accessible to insects and vermin.

Traveling or not, when children are ill, consider doing – nothing. Obviously, medications are essential for many illnesses. But not so for the vast majority of mild illnesses that children experience – colds and coughs, intestinal upsets, and low grade fevers, for example. Remedies for these generally do not shorten the duration of illness or prevent children from getting worse. When possible, speak to your health care professionals back home or reputable local professionals before treating.

For more information about keeping kids healthy and safe for travel and outdoor activities, please go to