Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

Originally posted: 3rd Mar 2021

Travelling with medication

If you have a pre-existing medical condition, such as asthma, diabeteshigh blood pressure or heart problems, it is likely you will take prescription medication when you go abroad.

Having a medical condition and carrying prescription medication shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a holiday abroad. However, it does mean you might have to take some extra steps to ensure your medication is kept safe and that you are allowed to carry it with you.

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Are you taking a controlled drug?

Many strong painkillers, sleeping tablets, anxiety medicines, ADHD tablets, and some other medicines are classed as ‘controlled drugs’ – these are listed as Schedule 1, 2, 3 and 4. If you’re taking regular medicines, check with your pharmacist if any of them are controlled drugs. You are not usually allowed to travel with schedule 1 controlled drugs (you must check with the Home Office Drug and Firearms Licensing Unit before you travel if you are taking any of these). However, you can usually travel with schedule 2, 3 and 4 drugs if you either:

  • Have a letter from the person who prescribed your medicine, which includes
    • Your name and address
    • A list of the countries you’re visiting
    • Details of your medicines, including doses, strengths, and quantities
    • The signature of the prescriber.
  • Get a license if you’re travelling for 3 months or more, or have a 3+ month supply of medication (you can fill in a government application form and send it with the doctor’s letter above).

What are the rules of the countries you’re visiting?

Different countries have different regulations for which medications they allow into the country and the maximum amount you can carry.

This applies to controlled drugs, but also to some medicines which aren’t controlled and even some medicines available without prescription in the UK. Rules for different countries can be checked with the foreign embassy in the UK.

Do you need a doctor’s note to take medication abroad?

You might be concerned that enhanced airport security measures concerning quantities of liquids you carry aboard an aircraft will prevent you from taking your medication on flights.

You needn’t worry – the government states you are permitted to take medication of more than 100ml in your hand luggage. However, you should check with your airline first.

For liquids, injectable medications and controlled drugs, it’s essential to carry a letter from your doctor with your name, countries you’re visiting and the details of all the medication you’re taking along with your medicines.

Regardless of what medication you’re taking (including tablets and inhalers), you should take a copy of your prescription and consider getting a note from your doctor detailing your medication. This can be helpful for border control checks, if you need medical help while you’re away or if your medicines need to be replaced. Remember your doctor may charge for this letter.

Can you take medication in your hand luggage?

The answer is yes – as long as you have the proper paperwork for your medication as above. More importantly, yes you should. Checked-in baggage can be lost or delayed, so carrying it with you is always safer.

Tablets, capsules, essential liquid medicines, hypodermic syringes, inhalers, cooling gel packs, special food and liquids needed for medical reasons and medical equipment such as TENS machines can all be carried in hand luggage. It may be possible to take an oxygen cylinder, but you need to arrange this with your airline.

If you’re in any doubt about whether you’ll be allowed to take your medication or medical equipment with you into the cabin, check the government guide on hand luggage restrictions for medical equipment.

Top tips for taking prescription medication abroad

  1. Be prepared – check with your pharmacist to find out if you’re taking controlled drugs and order your repeat prescription well in advance.
  2. Remember some drugs, including non-prescription medicines, are forbidden in certain countries (for instance, all codeine products are illegal in Hong Kong, Greece, and Indonesia and some decongestants are banned in Japan). Always check the website of the country’s foreign embassy in the UK.
  3. Always keep your medication in its proper packaging and keep a separate note of the name in case yours is lost or stolen and you need to purchase more while away.
  4. Keep a copy of your prescription, along with a letter from your doctor with your name, the countries you’re visiting and the details of all the medication you’re taking, with your passport and ticket.
  5. Keep your medication in your hand luggage but consider packing a spare supply of medication in the hold luggage in case you lose your hand luggage.
  6. Be prepared to be questioned at airport security about the medication you are carrying and to show your doctor’s letter.
  7. Take enough medication with you to last for your whole trip – medication bought abroad can be counterfeit. However, it’s worth checking the generic (non-brand) name of your medicines with your pharmacist before you go, so you can obtain supplies in an emergency.
  8. Check the expiry dates of your medicines to make sure they’ll still be in date by the end of your trip.
  9. Some medicines need to be kept below 25°c or stored in a fridge. Check with your pharmacist, especially if you’re travelling to a hot country.
  10. If you have diabetes and use insulin, take a cool bag to store your insulin if you are visiting a hot country. If you don’t have a cool bag, you could also store your medicine in a thermos flask, insulated pouch or wrapped in an ice pack. Check-in advance with your pharmacist about how to store insulin.
  11. Buy travel insurance which covers the loss of prescription medication, so you can make a claim to recoup the cost if you must buy replacement medication.

Your medication is an important part of your daily life at home, and it's equally important when on holiday, so it’s important to do some research and be prepared so your holiday goes smoothly.

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