This article covers the most useful over the counter (OTC) medications: which ones you should carry with you at all times, how to pack them, and how to administer the most useful OTC medications in an emergency.

Over the counter first aid medications

Many over the counter medications are worth having on hand in case of sudden accidents and illnesses. Some of the OTC medications listed below will ease irritation or discomfort and avoid a trip to the drug store or doctor, while others will ease pain for long enough for the patient to seek necessary professional medical care. In some cases, taking OTC medication while waiting for an ambulance to arrive can even save your life.

What to carry

  • Aloe Vera lotion
  • Antacid
  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Antihistamine
  • Aspirin (NEVER give aspirin to children)
  • Calamine lotion
  • Cough and cold medications
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Laxative
  • Pain relievers
    • Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol)
    • Ibuprofen (e.g. Advil)

+ Any personal medication you take that doesn’t need refrigeration

How to pack

  • Label clearly, with:
    • Generic drug name
    • Brand name
    • Recommended dosage(s), and
    • Expiry date
  • Pack safely to avoid blister packs getting torn, etc., so that medications stay in good condition
  • Replace each drug as it approaches its expiry date
  • If no replacement drugs are available, don’t throw the old ones away. Large scale studies of expired medicines, done using US Army stockpiles, have shown:
    • There is a high chance of the drug have some of its intended effect
    • There is low chance of the drug having (extra) negative side effects

Read more about medicine shelf lives here.

If you want to take pills out of their retail packaging, make sure that they are well sealed within their new package, but also easily recognizable. Brightly colored pills of different shapes and sizes are easy to recognize through clear plastic pouches or clear plastic vials. Different brightly colored or shaped containers may make the drugs easy for you to recognize and differentiate quickly, but this system won’t help a stranger who is trying to save your life.

A quick note on carrying prescription medications

Any prescription medication, as well as any controlled substance such as pseudoephedrine, is best left in its original packaging. Keep your prescription and any instructions nearby as well – in most states you are required by law to carry supporting documentation with prescription medication.

Although you’ve been taking your medication for a long time and no longer need a reminder of dosage etc., consider the possibility that you may some day wind up unconscious in an emergency situation. Knowing what medications you take, how much and when, will help an emergency responder make sure you get your medication in time, as well as ensure no conflicting drugs are given to you.

How to use over the counter drugs

Aloe Vera

What is it used for?

Aloe Vera is useful to cool, soothe and reduce irritation of the skin caused by:

  • Sunburn
  • Mild accidental burns
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Irritation from plants like stinging nettle. Because Aloe Vera isn’t oil-based like most moisturizers, you can safely apply it to a burn without trapping heat in the skin.
How do you use it?

You can use a prepared Aloe Vera gel or lotion that comes in a pump bottle or a tube, or you can break open a leaf from the Aloe Vera cactus and use the gel exactly as you find it inside the leaf.

  1. Wash the area with cool running water or, very gently, with a wet washcloth
  2. Gently apply a thin layer of Aloe Vera gel directly over the burn, sting or irritated skin.

Antacid (e.g. Alka-Seltzer, Tums, Gelusil, Maalox)

What is it used for?
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Acid reflux
How do you use it?

You can buy antacids as pills or chewable tablets.

  1. Take or chew one tablet as directed by packaging
  2. You may need a glass of water to drink with or afterwards

Anti-diarrhea medication (e.g. Imodium)

What is it used for?

Imodium is useful for treating loose stools, including ‘travelers’ diarrhea.’

How does it work?

The active ingredient Loperamide works by slowing down the rhythm of your gut, giving your body more time to absorb nutrients and fluids.

How do you use it?
  • Make sure the patient is drinking plenty of clear fluids to replace those lost.
  • Take 2 capsules at first (4mg) and then 1 (2mg) at a time until diarrhea is controlled, up to 8mg in total over a 24-hour period, or as directed by the medication packaging. Halve the initial dose for children between 8-12, and do not exceed a daily dose of 6mg.

Do not use anti-diarrhea medication if the patient has bloody or black stool, a fever, abdominal swelling, or is taking antibiotics. Consult a doctor instead.


What are they used for?

You can purchase over-the-counter strength antihistamines to ease the symptoms of allergy. These are often marketed to Hay Fever sufferers, but they can be useful in other situations. For example, some cat owners keep a supply of antihistamines handy in case someone who pays a visit turns out to have a cat allergy. Antihistamines can also be used to help someone who is having an allergic (but not anaphylactic) reaction to food or an insect sting.

How do you use them?

Antihistamines can come in the form of tablets or nasal sprays. Use as directed.


What is it used for?
  • Heart attack
How does it work?

By preventing the release of platelets (in case of a plaque blockage breaking off in an artery). Aspirin also helps to thin the blood, further helping to prevent embolism.

How do you use it?

In some cases, aspirin can be lifesaving: at the first sign of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately and chew 325mg of aspirin (that’s one adult-sized, non-coated aspirin) while waiting for emergency responders to arrive. Of course, if you (or the patient you are treating) have been prescribed rescue medication like nitroglycerin, you should take that.

Studies show that taking a regular dose of aspirin significantly lowers mortality rates for people who go to the ER for myocardial infarction.

Studies also show significantly less mortality if the patient takes aspirin sooner rather than later. 

Exceptions: children, people with an aspirin allergy, people already on blood-thinning medication

Calamine lotion

What is it used for?

Calamine lotion is used to relieve itchiness: It’s useful to keep in your first aid kit to treat:

  • Bee stings
  • Other insect bites and stings
  • Poison ivy rashes, and
  • Chicken pox itching
How do you use it?

Calamine lotion usually comes in a small tube, and can be applied directly to the itchy area. Apply in a thin layer using your finger.

Cough and cold medications

What is it used for?

Treating the symptoms of a cold, flu or congested cough. Some cold and flu medications also provide support to your immune system to help prevent the infection from getting worse, and to lessen the severity and length of the infection.

How does it work?

There’s a variety of cold and flu medication to choose from, all of which work in different ways. So which to carry?

Home made first aid kits commonly include pseudoephedrine, which is a powerful way to treat the symptoms of very severe colds, and cough syrup. Although the common cold is hardly an emergency, one or both of these items might be the difference between being able to give an important seminar, or report for your shift as a field nurse in an emergency.

How do you use it?

Follow the directions on the bottle or packaging.

Decongestant spray

What is it used for?

Treating a stuffy nose.

How does it work?

While antihistamines work to control the sneezing and itching caused by allergies, they may not help with congestion. Allergies cause the blood vessels in your nose to swell up, and decongestants help return those vessels to their normal size.

How do you take it?

Decongestants come in tablet form or as a nasal spray. The nasal sprays tend to be faster acting, and have fewer or less severe side effects.

Don’t use nasal sprays for more than 3 days, cut back on caffeine while using them, or if you have diabetes, glaucoma, an enlarged prostate, a heart condition, high blood pressure, or thyroid problems.

Hydrocortisone cream

What is it used for?

Hydrocortisone cream is used to treat skin inflammation, skin irritation, allergic reactions of the skin, and hemorrhoids.

How do you take it?
  • Shake the lotion well
  • Apply a thin layer to the affected area of skin, and rub in gently
  • Do not cover with a bandage or anything that could keep in air, including a tight-fitting diaper


What is it used for?

Used to relieve prolonged constipation. You can buy laxatives derived from several different synthetic or natural compounds, or a mixture of the two.

How do you take it?
  • Laxatives are available as very small pills, or chewable squares.
  • Make sure the patient is drinking plenty of water, and take the laxative as directed.
  • It’s important to not take laxatives –even ‘natural’ ones- for more than a few days in a row. Your body can quickly build up a dependence on these drugs, leading to long-term problems.

Pain relievers:

What are they used for?

Treating pain, fever, and inflammation (swelling) associated with:

  • Headache
  • Menstrual cramps (period pain)
  • Migraine
  • Sprains
  • The Flu (influenza virus)
How do they work?
·       Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol)

Reduces pain and fever by acting directly on the brain.

·       Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): Ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin, Nuprin) and Naproxen (e.g. Aleve, Naproxen)

Reduce pain, fever and inflammation. NSAIDS work by blocking certain enzymes needed by your body to make hormones called prostaglandins, thus reducing both swelling and pain.

How do you use them?

Take as directed

Before using pain relief drugs in first aid:

  • Before administering pain relievers, assess the cause of the pain. If the pain is severe or sudden and without explanation, you may treat it with painkillers for the present but you should also seek medical attention as quickly as possible.
  • Especially if the pain is headache, make sure the patient is properly hydrated. Dehydration is a common factor that causes or worsens headaches.
  • Always check, and adhere, to the maximum dosage. Pain relievers all have very specific daily dosages as well as the maximum number of days you can take them for in a row before they start doing serious damage to the body.
  • Over the counter pain relievers can cause serious health problems if they have interact with some prescription medication. Always check first.

Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate)

What is it used for?

Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets and suspension are both used for treating:

  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Upset stomach (dyspepsia)
  • Diarrhea
How does it work?

Bismuth subsalicylate works by coating irritated tissues in the gut, reducing inflammation and irritation. It also has antibacterial qualities that can help control e-coli infections, as well as weak antacid properties.

How do you take it?
  • Pepto-Bismol tablets and suspension can be taken with or without food.
  • If taking the suspension form, shake bottle before use.
  • Adults over 16 can take 2 tablets or 30ml of liquid. Repeat every 30-60 minutes as required, but do not exceed 8 doses in 24 hours.