How to properly mix your medications and time zones while traveling

Dec 15, 2019

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You take your medication around 9 a.m. every day and are about to travel for more than 24 hours to a time zone that’s 16 hours ahead of your home.

No, this is not the start of one of those “If Train A left the station…” style brain teasers. Instead it’s a situation that can have long-haul travelers wondering how they can safely get around taking their tablets in the middle of the night.

Dr. Sonny Lau, medical director at The Travel Doctor TMVC Melbourne, says the answer will depend on what you’re taking and how long you’ll be traveling.

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Just going away for a couple of days? Sonny says you may want to stick to your home timetable and set the alarm, but if it’s a long trip you’ll be better off switching to your destination’s time.

And, if you’re heading off on an around-the-world adventure, things will be more complicated.

“If you’re going to be changing time zones every few days it would be important to sit down with your doctor and work out a management plan,” Sonny says. “That way you can preemptively map out a timetable for taking medications well before your travels.”

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Elderly passengers and others who may be facing multiple medications across multiple time zones can avoid confusion by setting reminders in their smartphone’s calendar, or labeling alarms with what medication to take at that time.

Sonny says depending on the medication, you may be able to simply skip a day and then pick it up again at your usual time. Sticking to your daily habit of taking a certain tablet with breakfast, lunch or dinner will reduce the risk of forgetting while you’re on the road.

But if it’s something you have to take at regular intervals over a particular time, for example antibiotics, then they really do need to be as close to the prescribed time as possible, so you’ll need to set reminders you can trust.

It’s easy enough to have a “Did I take that tablet already?” moment when we’re at home. Throw in jet lag and it can be even more confusing.

To help keep track, the FDA’s medication tips include keeping a medicine calendar with your pills and making a note every time you take one, or using a timer cap for your bottles. These can go off when you next need to take a pill and will also display how long it’s been since you last opened the bottle.

If you do need to take your medication around the same time every day, Sonny says you can make things easier with some forward planning.

“Depending on your schedule you can progressively delay the timing. So on day one you push it by one or two hours, day two you do the same, until it reaches the right time at your destination. That way you don’t do it in one big step.”

When it comes to tablets that need to be taken with food, it’s important to follow the instructions with at least a little something to eat even if your body clock insists it’s not mealtime.

Sometimes food will only enhance the absorption of the medication, but most of the time it’s because the medication can upset an empty stomach.

“In our field of practice we regularly prescribe antimalarial medication,” Sonny explains. “Such medication often causes quite prominent tummy upsets if taken on an empty stomach, so much so that the traveler may stop taking them completely. They then go into a malaria area without being on the appropriate medication.”

When it’s time to pack your bags, remember to make sure you have your medication in your carry-on in case your luggage takes a detour. To save space, Sonny suggests putting your pills into a zip-lock bag, still sealed in their foil packaging, and then flattening the box so you can show exactly what it is along with your name and your pharmacist’s details. A letter from your doctor and a photo of your prescription on your smartphone is also a good idea.

Wait until you’ve cleared customs to divide your medication up into daily pillboxes, and remember something you bought over the counter at home could be illegal in the country you’re traveling to or through. The UAE and Japan are among the countries where codeine is illegal, so do your research before you fly.

And don’t forget: Your doctor knows how your different medications work best so book that appointment, take in pen and paper to write it all down, and together you can come up with your own personal medication time zone winning plan.

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