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What to Keep in Your Medicine Cabinet for Emergencies – Essentials

I had to learn the hard way how important it is to prepare yourself for emergencies.

When my oldest son was just over a year old, we took a vacation to a remote cabin in the mountains. The cabin had a wood stove in which we immediately started a fire to ward off the intense chill. In the busyness of unpacking, I didn’t see him wander over and put his hand up to feel the flames, but his screams of pain stopped my heart.

Huge blisters immediately erupted all over his palm, and it was at this moment I realized I didn’t have anything to treat his burns. I didn’t even know what to do. And we were over an hour from the nearest hospital.

Before you get into the same situation, ask yourself this: Do you know what’s in your medicine cabinet? Do you have a first-aid kit? Do you know how to use what’s in it?

Many people would have to answer no to those questions. But there’s never been a better time to look at what you have on hand and stock up on what you need to create a comprehensive inventory of medical supplies. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to do it.

Being prepared to handle small injuries and emergencies yourself is particularly vital right now. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many emergency rooms and doctor’s offices are overflowing with sick patients, which means they don’t have the time or space to treat mild to moderate injuries or illnesses. With the right supplies and the knowledge of what to do, you can treat minor injuries yourself and keep your family out of crowded waiting rooms.

Benefits of Having a Well-Stocked Medicine Cabinet

What if your child comes down with the flu at 2am? Do you have to make a middle-of-the-night run to the nearest drugstore — if there’s even one open? If your spouse cuts a finger during dinner prep, do you have the clot-stopping gauze and tape you need to avoid the emergency room and stop the bleeding yourself?

The most significant benefit to having a well-stocked medicine cabinet is that you’re prepared with the right tools and supplies when you need them most.

This level of preparedness can also save money. When you’re able to treat mild to moderate illnesses and injuries yourself, you avoid the sometimes significant doctor and hospital bills that inevitably come with professional treatment.

That said, there are going to be situations when professional medical care is essential. Always use your best judgment when deciding to treat your family at home versus taking them for professional care.

How to Save Money on Over-the-Counter Medication

It can get expensive to start building a family medical arsenal, especially if you’re starting from scratch.

One of the best ways to save money is to comparison-shop by retailer. Walmart often has competitive prices on over-the-counter (OTC) medication, especially when you find a coupon. However, you can find great deals at drugstores like CVS and Walgreens when they put certain brands on sale. You can also look for coupons online.

To save even more money, always buy generic. Because the United States Food and Drug Administration requires generics to be “chemically identical” to their brand-name counterparts, there’s no difference between name brands and store brands in terms of effectiveness. Just make sure the off-brands have the same active ingredients as the name brand.

It’s also smart to check prices on Amazon. Keep in mind that Amazon owns the generic OTC drug label Basic Care, and this brand’s prices are often lower than other retailers. According to a 2018 price analysis by CNBC, Basic Care products were 20% to 22% lower than the generic brands owned by CVS and Walgreens.

Think twice before you start stocking all these products in the bathroom, which is where the majority of families keep their medical supplies. Most OTC medications need to be kept in a cool, dry place to make it to their expiration dates. However, bathrooms with showers are frequently hot and steamy, which means your medication might degrade faster if they’re stored there. That can lead to a waste of money. Instead, store your medicines in a half-bath, the kitchen (away from the stove), or on an upper closet shelf where children can’t reach.

Medicines & Supplies to Have on Hand

Consumers have a dizzying array of choices when it comes to OTC medications. So what do you really need to have around to treat most of your family’s ills?

Pain Relievers

When it comes to OTC pain relief, you have three options: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen.

Acetaminophens like Tylenol are some of the most widely recognized pain relievers and fever reducers because they’re relatively safe for most people, even pregnant women. According to Harvard Medical School, acetaminophen is gentler on the stomach than other pain relievers, such as ibuprofen. However, taking acetaminophen in large doses can cause liver damage.

You also need a pain reliever like Advil, which contains ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. In an interview with New York Magazine, Dr. Joseph Pena, doctor of anesthesiology and pain medicine, says ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory, so it works well on muscle and body pain. However, large doses of ibuprofen can cause kidney damage. Harvard also states that NSAIDs can cause a rise in blood pressure.

Products like Aleve contain naproxen, which is also an NSAID. The difference between naproxen and ibuprofen is that naproxen has a longer-lasting effect, but it takes longer to get into your system and start working. Generally, it’s best to use ibuprofen for short-term needs, like temporary muscle pain, and naproxen for chronic conditions like arthritis. However, reports that naproxen products can cause more stomach upset.

Note: Some pain relievers might not be safe if you’re currently taking medication, especially blood thinners. Talk to your doctor before stocking up on any pain reliever to make sure it is safe for you and your family.  You also need to be careful when taking a pain killer in conjunction with cold or flu medicines, as those can contain either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.


Decongestants are medicines that relieve congestion from allergies, colds, sinusitis, or the flu. These are good to have when you’re stuffed up, and they can help you get more sleep at night.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), many decongestants contain pseudoephedrine, which is safe for most people to use. However, illicit drug manufacturers also use pseudoephedrine illegally to make methamphetamine, an illegal and highly addictive street drug. Because of this, pharmacies must stock products containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter. You don’t need a prescription to purchase these products, but you do have to show your ID to get one.

Decongestants come in three forms: pills (like Sudafed), liquids( like Mucinex), or nasal sprays (like Afrin). It’s essential you do your own research and talk to your doctor about which type of decongestant is best for you and your family.

Note: The AAFP states that people with high blood pressure, diabetes, prostate and thyroid problems, heart problems, and glaucoma should not take decongestants without talking to their doctor. And children younger than 6 should not take decongestants.


Antihistamines are drugs that block the release of histamine, which is the compound involved in the inflammatory response of an allergic reaction. In mild allergic reactions, we get watery eyes, nasal congestion, or itchy eyes. In severe allergic reactions, histamine can cause anaphylactic shock, which is a sometimes fatal response to a particular allergen.

Including antihistamines like Benadryl, or one of its generic counterparts can help you control allergy symptoms. It can even help reduce the itching and swelling from bug bites and stings.

And if you have a known fatal allergy, such as to bee stings or peanuts, carry an epinephrine autoinjector, commonly known by the brand name EpiPen, with you at all times to treat anaphylactic shock. And while they can be expensive (the generics are much cheaper), have a backup in your medicine cabinet if you can. According to Healthline, symptoms of anaphylactic shock include:

  • Skin hives or sudden paleness
  • Feeling too warm suddenly
  • Having difficulty swallowing or feeling like you have a lump in your throat
  • A rapid but weak pulse
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
  • Swollen tongue or lips
  • Abdominal pain
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Running nose or sneezing
  • Feeling that something is just not right with your body

If you experience symptoms of anaphylactic shock, use your autoinjector and call 911 immediately and go to the emergency room. If left untreated, anaphylactic shock can be fatal.

Cough Medicine

According to Harvard Health, there are two main types of coughs: wet and dry. So you need a cough medicine to treat each of them.

A wet cough means that your cough is producing phlegm. A wet cough is typically caused by an infection. Wet coughs need cough medicine that contains guaifenesin, which helps loosen secretions.

A dry cough expels no phlegm and is generally caused by irritants in the air or the back of your throat. However, this is not true all the time. Harvard Health reports that a dry cough is a common symptom of the COVID-19 virus. You can treat dry coughs with products that contain dextromethorphan, which helps suppress the urge to cough.

You can also keep a jar of Vick’s VapoRub in your medicine cabinet to treat dry coughs, as well as nasal congestion. Vick’s contains a blend of camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol to suppress coughs and relieve congestion.

Cold Medicine Blends

When you’re down with a severe cold or flu, nothing beats an all-in-one medicine that can knock out multiple symptoms like body aches, headache, fever, cough, chest congestion, sneezing, and runny nose.

Having medications that treat a combination of symptoms, such as Dayquil and Nyquil or a generic version, can help you get back on your feet or sleep more soundly at night. However, cold and flu medicine blends contain several different drugs that can interact with some prescription medications. Some of these drugs include acetaminophen, guaifenesin, dextromethorphan, and phenylephrine (a decongestant).

Note: According to, people taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (aka MAOIs) should not take certain cold and flu medicine blends, as a dangerous drug interaction can occur. And anyone taking more than the recommended dose can cause severe liver damage.

Upset Stomach Medication

Perhaps you overate at dinner, or your child has come home with the dreaded stomach flu. Either way, your family needs some medicine to calm and soothe an upset stomach.

Calcium carbonate products like Tums or Rolaids can help relieve heartburn, sour stomach, bloating, and indigestion from certain foods or overindulgence. These products also provide a boost in calcium.

Products like Pepto Bismol and Kaopectate also treat heartburn, gas, and indigestion in addition to nausea and diarrhea. Both of these contain bismuth subsalicylate, which helps soothe irritated stomach lining. Pepto Bismol makes Children’s Pepto, which is suitable for kids as young as 2.

Eye Drops

If you regularly suffer from seasonal allergies, keep an allergy-reducing eye drop like Opcon-A around to relieve itchy, red, and watery eyes. Opcon-A contains pheniramine maleate, an antihistamine to reduce itching, and naphazoline to reduce redness.

You can also include an eye drop like Visine Tired Eye drops, which helps relieve your eyes when they’re tired or when you’ve been staring at a screen for too long, which could happen more frequently as people self-isolate due to the pandemic. These drops contain three moisturizing compounds — glycerine, hypromellose, and polyethylene glycol — to soothe dry, tired eyes.

Eye Drops Cough Syrup Medicine First Aid Urgent Care

First-Aid Essentials

Coughs, sneezes, and fever are just a few of the conditions you can treat with your medicine cabinet essentials. Scrapes, bruises, cuts, and burns are others, which is why you should also have an arsenal of first-aid wound treatments at the ready.

Bandages, Gauze, & Tape

Always keep a healthy supply of assorted sizes of adhesive bandages in your medicine cabinet for small wounds. That’s especially important if you have kids, who can’t seem to get through the week without at least one scraped knee or elbow. You can save money on bandages by buying bulk, either at bulk warehouse stores like Costco or at online superstores like Amazon, where you can find large family packs.

For larger scrapes and wounds, buy cotton pads in various sizes, gauze, and medical tape for securing the cotton pad in place.

Keep a tube of antibiotic ointment, like Neosporin, with your bandages to help reduce the risk of infection, reduce scarring, and speed healing.

Hemostatic Agents

Hemostatic agents, also called antihemorrhagic agents, are chemicals that stop bleeding by aiding or quickening the clotting process. You can use these agents to control bleeding from small cuts and traumatic injuries, such as arterial bleeding.

A 2016 article published in the journal Trauma Monthly states that hemostatic agents can play an important role in stopping bleeding in prehospital situations and prevent hemorrhage-associated death. Having hemostatic agents around is especially important right now, when emergency medical personnel might not be able to get to your home quickly enough to assist with a serious injury.

There are several different products useful for stopping bleeding, and each serves a slightly different function. The U.S. military, law enforcement, and emergency medical professionals use many of these products.

One such product is QuikClot Gauze, which contains kaolin. Kaolin is a mineral that accelerates your body’s natural clotting process. With this product, the gauze is layered with the hemostatic agent itself, so you just put it on the wound and apply pressure.

A less expensive but just as effective option is Celox. Celox uses chitosan, a polymer compound found in shrimp shells. Celox comes in granules you pour directly onto a wound, quickly forming a gel that aids in the clotting process. A 2011 report published in the European Journal of Emergency Medicine found that Celox was a useful agent in stopping massive traumatic bleeding in battlefield conditions.

Compression Bandages & Tourniquets

An essential tool that goes along with any hemostatic agent is a compression bandage, such as the Israeli battle dressing. A compression bandage stops blood flow by applying direct and consistent pressure to traumatic wounds. The U.S. military widely uses these bandages, and although they’re very easy to use, there is a bit of a learning curve.

If you decide to keep them around for emergencies, look up a tutorial on YouTube to make sure you know how to use it properly. The YouTube tutorial by SkinnyMedic, an emergency medical technician (EMT), is clear and easy to follow.

You should also have a tourniquet in your first-aid kit. You use a tourniquet on traumatic wounds involving bright, spurting blood, and this is another tool that requires some knowledge to use correctly. An AmCollegeofSurgeons YouTube video featuring Dr. Lenworth Jacobs shows you how to apply a tourniquet properly.

Bite & Sting Kit

Especially if you live in a rural area, having a bite and sting kit in your home — and knowing how to use it — is essential. These kits enable you to extract poison from snake and spider bites and wasp and scorpion stings using an extractor.

Snakebites are not common, but they do happen. According to a 2017 analysis published in the open-source journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, there are around 57,500 snake bites in the Americas each year, resulting in 370 deaths.

Burn Treatments

According to the National Institutes of Health, scientists have traced the use of aloe vera back over 6,000 years to ancient Egypt. The modest little plant is a powerful natural remedy for skin conditions, and having a bottle of gel in your first-aid kit can help heal mild to moderate burns, including sunburn.

You should also keep packets of Water-Jel Burn Jel or a generic version in your first-aid kit. This burn gel contains lidocaine, which relieves pain.

Essential Lifesaving Skills

Would you know what to do if someone in your family began showing signs of a heart attack? What if one of your children fell and broke an arm or got a severe burn from boiling water?

In normal times, we’d call 911 or rush to the nearest emergency room for help. However, we can’t always depend on outside help, especially during the current pandemic. Being able to handle these situations yourself is empowering, and it can give you a sense of control when the world feels so out of control.

Knowing what to do in medical emergencies is also a critical survival skill, which is incredibly important in times when you don’t have access to immediate medical help.

One way to learn lifesaving emergency medical skills is by watching YouTube videos, such as those produced by EMT SkinnyMedic. His channel teaches you what to do if you’re forced to be a first responder yourself. You can learn lifesaving skills like how to perform CPR, how to apply a tourniquet, and how to apply direct pressure to stop traumatic bleeding properly.

Another great resource is the book “The Ultimate Survival Medicine Guide” by Dr. Joseph Alton and registered nurse practitioner Amy Alton. In this book, you learn how to treat a broad spectrum of emergencies and health conditions, ranging from head wounds to kidney stones to blisters.

Final Word

If you’re wondering what happened with my son, he turned out fine. We ran down the mountain to get a cell signal so we could look up what to do and ran the burns under cold running water for 30 minutes to stop the burning.

For him, the blisters — and the memory — faded with time. But for me, it never did. As soon as we returned home, I began learning basic first-aid skills and building a comprehensive medical arsenal to treat most of the illnesses and injuries we might encounter as a family. I took classes, read books, and watched hours of online tutorials. Four years later, we’re now prepared to handle a wide variety of illnesses and emergencies.

The lesson here is that illness and emergencies can happen to anyone at any time. If you’re prepared, your family is more likely to recover and thrive, especially in situations when you can’t get professional medical care quickly.

Has the current pandemic inspired you to learn new skills or restock your family’s medicine cabinet?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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