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Taking your medicines abroad

Lesley Dobson / 05 October 2017 ( 02 August 2018 )

Setting off on holiday, or visiting family or friends abroad? Put prescription medicines at the top of your packing list.

Some countries don’t allow certain medicines across their borders, so check before you travel.
Some countries don’t allow certain medicines across their borders, so check before you travel.

Are you a fan of travelling light, or don’t feel you have enough clothes, books, shoes and sun cream, unless your bag is too heavy to lift?

In either case, your holiday preparations should start with a list of all the prescription medications you take. Suddenly finding that you’re away from home and don’t have vital medicines can cause a lot of anxiety, expense, and even a ruined holiday.

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Check if you can take your medicines to the country you want to visit

A good start to your holiday planning is to check with the embassies of the countries that you want to visit, whether there are any restrictions on the drugs you can take in. Some countries don’t allow certain medicines across their borders. Do this before you book your trip to avoid wasting your money.

Prepare your medicines before you travel

Start the run-up to your trip by making a list of medicines that you need to take – both prescription and over the counter. It’s useful to keep a couple of copies of this list, one in your handbag or wallet, and another in your luggage. If you have a mobile phone, or tablet, keep a list there, too. Make sure that you also have the names and phone numbers of your family and friends, just in case you need some help from home.

It’s a good idea to list both the brand name and the generic (medical) name for your medicines, as this may make it easier to explain what you need to a doctor or pharmacist when you’re abroad.

Q I’m going to the US for a month. What should I do about taking my medication with me – statins, metformin, glimepiride? I don’t want to face awkward questions at customs.

While you might be tempted to ‘decant’ your medicines into a couple of pill boxes to save space, it’s best to keep your various medicines in their original containers, even though they’ll take up more room in your hand baggage.

Ensure you have a full month’s supply. Carry a copy of your repeat prescription and a letter from your GP listing the medication you’re carrying – the surgery may charge a fee for this service.

In some cases there are strict rules about what ‘controlled’ medication – some steroids and strong painkillers – you can take to certain countries, including your return to the UK.

Visit the NHS website for more information.

Extract taken from Saga Magazine, August 2017. For more travel tips, subscribe to the magazine today!

Paperwork you may need for taking medicines abroad

Ask your GP to write a letter giving details of your health problems, and listing all the medications you take. Don’t be surprised if your GP practice charges you for this – they don’t have to provide this service. If you are being treated by a hospital consultant or specialist ask them for a letter regarding your health and treatment too (they may also charge you for this).

While you’re talking to your GP or consultant, ask them if they can give you a prescription for double the amount of all your prescription-only medicines. This can help you if your luggage – and your medication - is lost, or if you are held up abroad and might run out of your prescription drugs.

Customs officers may want to see your medicines, letters relating to your medicines, and, if you have them, licences for controlled drugs. It’s a good idea to keep all of these in your hand luggage, in case you’re asked to show them at customs.

If you taking a controlled drug abroad with you, there are some important things you need to do before you travel.

Check whether you take any controlled drugs. You should be able to find this out from your GP, pharmacist, or consultant, if you have one. You can also check on the controlled drugs list. You can find this at , but it may be simpler to ask your pharmacist to check for you.

If you are taking a controlled drug with you, the UK Government’s advice is to write a proof of ownership letter. You must include this information in the letter:

• Your name

• The countries you are going to visit, and the dates of your arrival and departure

• A full list of your medicines, including the doses you take, and how much of each medicine you have.

• The signature of the doctor who prescribed the drugs for you.

• An alternative is to apply for a Personal import/export licence. You can download an application form at the website.

Don’t leave home without your EHIC

Even if you are totally prepared, with plenty of your medications to last you until you’re home again, there are some events we can’t prepare for, such as accidents and unexpected illnesses. These health problems do sometimes involve a trip to a local hospital.

Learn more about how the EHIC works

If you’re travelling in Europe, make sure that you apply for a European Health Insurance Card – an EHIC. This should help to reduce your medical costs if you need to see a doctor while you’re away, or end up in hospital. However, it may not cover all your medical expenses while you’re away, so make sure you take out travel and medical insurance before you set off.  

What to do if you get ill abroad

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.