What’s in your purse, backpack, or pockets? Aside from your keys, wallet, and mobile phone, chances are you’ve got some old receipts and a few dollars worth of loose change—and nothing that would help you if you landed in a health jam. Health emergencies can pop up at any time, so make sure you have these 12 small—but essential—items stowed away in your bag or your desk drawers at work.
This card can be used for more than simply filling out health forms. It’s also an easy way for medics to identify your name and call your insurance company for more information in an emergency. “Your insurance card is the next best thing to your social security card,” says Melisa Lai Becker, MD, site chief of emergency medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, near Boston. If you can’t find space in your wallet, snap a picture of the front and back and keep them on your smartphone, Dr. Lai Becker suggests. Two others to add: your business card and your doctor’s. The first is another easy way to identify you, while the second hints at what conditions you might have. “If the card is for a cardiologist, then you know the person is seeing someone for a heart issue,” Dr. Lai Becker says.
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In an emergency, medics will want to know who to contact. “Medical personnel are accustomed to looking for ICE under a phone’s contact list,” Dr. Lai Becker says. That stands for “In Case of Emergency” and is usually entered with the phone number of a family member. You can list your medications, allergies, health conditions, and doctor’s name in the note section of the contact too. Keeping a written list isn’t a bad idea since most phones these days are password protected, though the new Health app from Apple will allow you to make an emergency card accessible from the lock screen.
A 2011 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that women with even mild dehydration experienced headaches, poor concentration, fatigue, and worse moods. So it’s a good idea to have some H2O on you no matter the temperature. “We breathe out water all the time,” Dr. Lai Becker says. “It’s important to keep up lubrication.” Though eight cups a day is the traditional recommendation, there’s an easy way to tell if you’re dehydrated: check your pee. “If you’re turning the water yellow then the urine is too concentrated,” Dr. Lai Becker says. “Your goal is to have a light yellow urine.”
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Headaches pop up at the most inconvenient times. “So many people deal with the pain and don’t do anything,” says Robin Miller, MD, a board-certified internist and co-author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife and Beyond. At the end of the day, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help you focus more on work projects or errands. Ibuprofen is also an anti-inflammatory drug, so it’s good for treating backaches, muscle soreness, and menstrual cramps. Acetaminophen is thought to be better for headaches and arthritis. The best time to pop a pill would be as soon as you start to feel pain, Dr. Miller says. Just make sure you’re taking the medication as prescribed, so read the label.
Chest pain after a meal is no fun, especially when you’re dining out. If you’re going to a restaurant where the food may flare up your heartburn, it’s safe to have a chewable antacid on you in case. “Take just one when you start to feel something,” Dr. Miller says. Otherwise, you can save it for another day. Tums has the added benefit of giving you extra calcium, Dr. Miller says. The medication’s main ingredient is calcium carbonate, also used as a dietary supplement for people low on the nutrient, according to the National Institutes of Health. Be wary of how much you take though. Too many may lead to a case of diarrhea, Dr. Miller says.
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Having a couple bandages on you is useful because there’s always someone looking for one, Dr. Lai Becker says. You never knew when you will get a paper cut or scrape. Not covering your wound up leaves it vulnerable to bacteria you come across throughout the day. If you don’t have access to any antibiotic ointment, that’s fine. With any minor cut, the most important thing is to wash it out with plain tap water, Dr. Lai Becker says. Add soap if there’s oil or grease in your wound and apply pressure for any bleeding.
Diarrhea is an all-too-common ailment you need to be ready to handle. The CDC reports that travelers’ diarrhea affects 30% to 50% of vacationers. Luckily, Pepto-Bismol contains an agent shown to reduce the incidence of travelers’ diarrhea by 50%, according to the CDC. Like antacid, it comes in a compact chewable form. “If you’re going to a questionable place to eat, take one before you eat,” Dr. Miller says. Don’t freak out, though, if you get a black tongue or stool. That happens in some people and is normal, Dr. Miller says.
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If you do yourself one favor this cold and flu season, carry a set of tissues. “You don’t want to be blowing on your sleeve,” Dr. Miller says. That’s a surefire way to spread germs to your clothing and even infect others. According to the National Institutes of Health, you can catch a cold if your nose, eyes, or mouth touch anything contaminated by the virus. In addition to stocking up on tissues, you should practice proper hand washing too. In a Michigan State University study of college students, researchers found 23% didn’t use soap when washing their hands and—big yikes—10% didn’t wash their hands at all.
Just because you slather on sunscreen in the morning doesn’t guarantee it will stick all day. Most formulas wear off as you sweat—more so after a workout. “Even rubbing your nose or face can wipe it off,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of Skin Rules. You should be reapplying the lotion daily every two hours—yes, even on cloudy days—to protect from cumulative sun damage. That also means little spots like the tops of feet or your ears, Dr. Jaliman says. If you’re not a fan of messy lotion, you can opt for a powder formula or spray sunscreen.
If you’re already flossing once a day, good job—you’re doing better than 10% of Americans who don’t floss at all, according to the American Dental Association. If you’re going out for a round of wings, though, it doesn’t hurt to have some floss with you. Bits of stray food can sit in your teeth for a while, says Gigi Meinecke, a dentist in Potomac, Maryland, and spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. That can be uncomfortable and lead to more serious problems like an abscess, a tooth infection that can spread to your gums. Don’t want to carry a whole pack? Cut off the corner of a regular mailing envelope and place a little floss inside, Dr. Meinecke suggests. “You can’t carry your brush easily,” she says. “But you can carry floss anywhere.”
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A travel pack of aspirin is great to have around if you or someone you know has heart troubles. “It’s one of the first line agents medics will give to someone who calls an ambulance with chest pain,” Dr. Lai Becker says. During a heart attack, your blood vessels can’t supply enough oxygen to the muscle because of a clot that forms and blocks an artery, according to the American Heart Association. “Aspirin works to inhibit the function of the platelets that help people form clots,” Dr. Lai Becker says. As long as you’re not allergic, medics will usually give four baby aspirin to the patient to chew, Dr. Lai Becker says.
Just four melt-away tablets of children’s Benadryl could temper a severe allergic reaction, Dr. Lai Becker says. When someone goes into potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis, the chemical histamine is released in your body. When a large amount of histamines is released, your lips, tongue, face, and airway can swell and you can have trouble breathing, Dr. Lai Becker says. It’s a medical emergency so call 9-1-1, but Benadryl is a powerful antihistamine that can help block the chemical. Giving someone about 50 milligrams of Benadryl could be the start to saving a life, Dr. Lai Becker says. (Chewables are 12. 5 milligrams; liquids are 12.5 milligrams per teaspoon, and capsules may be 25 or 50 milligrams.)
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