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Emergency Plan! 16 Essentials For Your College First Aid Kit

Make sure your personal emergency kit is well stocked before you really need it. And read on to learn which OTC drugs can be dangerous.

News flash: You are going to get sick. Or, at the very least, need a Band-Aid. Even if what ails you ultimately requires a visit to the campus health center or urgent care, a well-stocked medicine cabinet (or a stash of supplies kept in a storage bin under the bed or in a desk drawer) can be your first line of defense when it comes to alleviating common aches and pains, a case of the spring sniffles, or an upset stomach. Plus, knowing how to take care of yourself when you are feeling less than 100 percent (and Dr. Mom is a few hundred miles away) is a giant adulting step forward.

Finding the right over-the-counter remedies—the ones that work medical magic on a headache or heartburn, for example—and using them correctly and safely can be tricky. So, to help out, we rounded up a list of things you should keep on hand, and a few to avoid.

First up: It’s a good idea to organize all your medical information and have it on hand. Cara Leuchtenberger, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) in Concord, New Hampshire, suggests keeping a copy of your insurance card with you at all times, along with an up-to-date list of your immunizations, your blood type, a list of any medications and supplements you’re taking, and a list of anything you’re allergic to. (Screenshots or notes in your phone are a good way to store this info. And though most colleges require proof of certain immunizations for enrollment and therefore will have these records, it’s important to know where you stand if you ever wind up in the ER.)

“It’s also smart to list an emergency contact under ICE (In Case of Emergency) on your phone,” says Leuchtenberger. “It’s one of the first places emergency room staff will look when they need to contact someone on your behalf.”

Here’s what to stock in your first aid kit:

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1. Ibuprofen

To untangle the knots of a tension headache, reduce swelling and inflammation, ease muscle aches and pains, help with some common cold symptoms, and manage a fever. Ibuprofen (aka Advil or Motrin) is a dependable choice—and a safer choice than acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin. Many people don’t realize that Tylenol can be toxic to the liver and should never be taken with alcohol. Or that aspirin carries a risk for Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease.

2. Naproxen

To take the edge off chronic pain and discomfort. Naproxen (aka Aleve) works a lot like ibuprofen, tackling some of the same nagging aches and pains. But because this painkiller is long acting, it may offer greater relief for extended discomfort from things like tendonitis, menstrual cramps, and back pain.

3. Cough syrup

For temporary relief from a persistent bark. Most coughs resolve on their own, but there will come a time—the night before a final exam or during an important presentation, for example—when you need something to quiet things down so you can get on with your life. Keep it simple. Stick to an expectorant like guaifenesin, to clear congestion from a common cold, or a suppressant, to stifle a dry, hacking cough.

4. Saline nasal spray

To help clear a clogged nose and wash out pollen and other allergens that can accumulate in your nostrils. Pure saline spray is a low-risk, high-reward addition to your arsenal of remedies—particularly if you’re suffering from seasonal allergies or a case of the sniffles.

5. Antihistamine

To tackle the minor symptoms of seasonal allergies. Stick to second-generation antihistamines, like Zyrtec, Allegra, or Claritin, which shouldn’t make you drowsy and prevent you from powering through a busy day. Antihistamines block histamine, a symptom-causing chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction.

6. Throat lozenges

To soothe a sore throat. Lozenges work by lubricating throat tissue and easing irritation of mild symptoms, including dryness, itchiness or a tickle, and minor pain. These are available in a wide range of varieties and flavors, including many that are “all natural” and/or sugar-free.

7. Chewable antacids

To alleviate heartburn. An erratic diet, eating super spicy food or snacking too close to bedtime, drinking too much, and/or stress (hello, college!) can wreak havoc on your digestive system, which is why keeping a chewable antacid like Tums on hand for fast relief is a good idea.

It’s called a common cold for a reason. And if all your friends are sniffling and sneezing, chances are that soon you will be too. Cold germs spread easily in the close quarters of dorms, study halls, and classrooms, and once you’ve got the bug there’s little to do other than wait it out.

Most cold viruses last 3 to 10 days, but they can take up to 14 days to completely clear your system. And no matter how common, there’s no arguing that the sore throat, runny nose, watery eyes, and whatever else it brings will leave you feeling miserable for much of that time.

For the record, antibiotics don’t work on viruses. And while it may be tempting to look for relief from a multi-symptom over-the-counter cold remedy, medical professionals often advise against it. “I would avoid them,” says Leuchtenberger, the advanced practice registered nurse. “I’d opt instead for an expectorant to ease congestion and make a cough more productive, paired with ibuprofen as needed every 6 hours to help with some of the other discomfort.” You can also try a saline nose spray to help you breathe more easily, and lozenges to soothe a sore throat.

One reason medical experts discourage the use of multi-symptom cold remedies, which typically have 2 to 4 different medications in one dose, is that if you aren’t careful, you could end up taking more medication than you need. The other is the increased risk of dangerous interactions with other meds you’re taking. For instance, multi-symptom cold relievers should not be taken if you are on prescription medication for ADHD or taking another form of a stimulant or an antihistamine.

So until science comes up with something better, your best bet is to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and have a bowl of chicken soup. If your symptoms don’t improve in two weeks, or if you experience a fever lasting 5 days or more, shortness of breath, wheezing, severe sore throat, or sinus pain, check in with the student health center or urgent care.

8. Pepto-Bismol

To neutralize an upset stomach when you’ve eaten something that doesn’t agree with you. When that happens, a bottle of the pink stuff may be just the thing to make you feel better. If the thought of chugging the chalky liquid leaves you squeamish, Pepto-Bismol is also available in chewable and caplet form.

9. Calamine lotion

To take the sting out of insect bites; relieve the itchiness of a rash; and dry the weeping and ooziness of poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak. Calamine, which is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential meds, is available as a lotion or spray. Keep it handy as you head back outdoors during warmer weather.

10. Cortisone cream

For relief from a rash or other skin irritations. Cortisone cream has an anti-inflammatory effect that can help with minor dermatitis, mosquito bites, and mild cases of poison ivy or poison oak.

11. Antibiotic ointment

To prevent infection and promote healing. A small tube of topical antibiotic ointment, like Neosporin or Bacitracin, is a must for proper wound care. Use it on minor cuts, scrapes, and burns under a Band-Aid. Speaking of …

12. Band-Aids

To keep wounds clean and moist so they can heal properly. Did you know that an uncovered wound is more likely to leave a scar or to be reinjured? Keeping cuts and abrasions covered also prevents water, dirt, and germs from causing further harm.

13. Digital thermometer

To put an end to the guesswork and get an accurate read on whether or not you have a fever. Really. It’s that simple. A fever on its own isn’t always a cause for concern, but it is a clue that something isn’t right. If it lasts longer than a few days or your temperature climbs to 103 F, you should see a doctor.

14. Alcohol wipes

To use as an antiseptic. Putting rubbing alcohol (or hydrogen peroxide) on an open wound isn’t a good idea, but a box of premoistened sterile alcohol wipes are great for disinfecting a thermometer, tweezers, or nail clippers so germs won’t spread and small wound sites won’t become infected by dirty instruments. You can also use them to wipe away germs on door handles, desktops, remotes, or any surface that gets a lot of use—especially during cold and flu season.

15. Tweezers and a magnifying glass

To remove splinters, ticks, or bee stingers. Tweezers are exactly what you need to pluck small pointy or grippy things out of your skin. The magnifying glass is to help you see up close and to make sure nothing is left behind that can cause further irritation or get infected.

16. Reusable ice/heat pack

A versatile nontoxic pack that can be filled with ice or warm water is great for putting cold or heat on muscle aches and sprains, headaches, toothaches, minor burns, and insect bites. (You can also purchase reusable ice packs and heating pads separately.) Rule of thumb: Cold numbs pain and reduces inflammation; heat soothes stiff joints and relaxes muscles.

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