How to Stock Your Medicine Cabinet Based on Your Specific Needs, According to MDs
Make time for some shelf care in every phase of your family's life.
Does this sound familiar? You scrape your knee and limp to the medicine cabinet, only to find a desiccated tube of antibiotic cream, its expiration date written in the hieroglyphics of a long- ago civilization. Regularly refreshing the contents of your medicine cabinet can keep you and your family prepared for life's small emergencies. And as your circumstances change, so should your stash. (If your baby is now a freshman, it's time to toss that booger bulb.) Doctors share the essentials everyone should have, plus items for three kinds of families—the on-the-go sporty crew, households with young children, and empty nesters—so you'll always be well supplied.
The Absolute Essentials for Any Medicine Cabinet
Start here. Every home should have these basics on hand.
A good first choice for treating headaches, pain, and fever because it's gentler on the stomach than ibuprofen. Tylenol is the well-known brand.
Sold under such brand names as Motrin and Advil, it can be used by family members 6 months
of age and older. "It's a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, so it can be a better option when there's swelling, such as after a sprain, or for teething," says Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician in Ladera Ranch, Calif.
3 Saline Nasal Drops, Rinse or Spray
For nasal congestion, our experts like medical-grade salt water. "The best way to clean out passages is by irrigating them with a saline solution," Williamson says.
To combat a cough in anyone older than 2, our doctors advise turn- ing to the pantry instead of the medicine cabinet. "Honey coats the throat," Williamson says. If eating straight from the spoon is too much, stir it into warm water and sip. Susan Duffy, MD, MPH, professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School, says many families like a drugstore option: Zarbee's Naturals, which features honey as the main ingredient.
5 Diphenhydramine (like Benadryl)
"This can literally be a lifesaver if someone has an allergic reaction to a food or sting," Duffy says. "No home should be without it." Though liquid is quickest acting, you can also keep pills or chewables on hand for calming hives or recovering from a visit to a friend's pet hair palace. If ongoing seasonal allergies are an issue, opt for a non-drowsy 24-hour formulation containing loratadine (like Claritin), says Indu S. Partha, MD, clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
6 1 Percent Hydrocortisone Cream
Crucial for middle-of-the-night mosquito bites, this mild anti-inflammatory steroid cream is useful for treating all kinds of itchiness, as well as eczema.
7 Calamine Lotion
Williamson is a fan of the classic pink stuff for rashes and bites. "It's kind of old-fashioned, but it works great, especially when you need to coat a good amount of surface area, as you do with poison oak or ivy," she says.
8 Petroleum Jelly
Use this trusted all-purpose goop (Vaseline is a popular brand) to prevent and treat chafing, soothe dry skin, heal chapped lips, and ease off a stuck ring. Dry, itchy scab? Daub some on, Williamson says.
9 Petroleum-Based Antibiotic Ointment
Our experts agree that the best way to clean a cut is with good old soap and running water. For extra protection against infection, you can rub on a broad-spectrum antibiotic cream, like Polysporin. (Watch for irritation: In some people, antibiotic creams can cause a local allergic reaction, Duffy notes.)
10 Saline Solution
Keep a big bottle around for flushing sand and other foreign particles out of eyes.
To extract ticks and splinters, stock a sharp-tipped pair, Duffy says. (Her favorite pair has a magnifying glass and light attached.) Before each use, clean the tweezers by soaking them in rubbing alcohol for 30 seconds and letting them air-dry.
"I'm amazed how many people don't have one at home," Duffy says. An electronic forehead model is a good all-purpose choice, though babies still need a rectal thermometer.
What to Add if You're an Active, Super-Sporty Family
1 Additional Bandages and Gauze
Every house needs bandages, but the active ones will find fun and creative ways to bleed, so stock a wider range, says Jeanne Doperak, DO, a sports medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "You might need a large gauze pad if one of your athletes slides and gets a big turf burn." (You can cut large pads down to fit smaller wounds.) For slices, butterfly bandages can close a wound and speed healing. "The goal is to keep the edges of the skin together so the body can repair itself," Duffy says.
2 Self-Adhering Wrap
Doled out by trainers and used in emergency rooms, this next-gen bandage is a stretchy elastic roll that sticks to itself—no need for those old-school little metal prongs. "You wind it around the limb, and it keeps a big bandage or gauze in place," Doperak says. Coban is a popular brand.
3 Neti Pot
"I hand these out all the time to athletes before a game to help with breathing. I also suggest patients use them first thing in the morning to clear the night's congestion," Doperak says. "I joke that they'll get stuff out of there from three years ago!" Fill it with a warm saline solution and give your sinuses a rinse. (A YouTube tutorial might help you get the hang of it—or check out our guide on how to use a neti pot safely.)
4 Steroid Nasal Spray
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, Doperak advises getting relief from a nasal spray such as fluticasone (e.g., Flonase). "It doesn't make you drowsy, and I like that it doesn't have whole-body side effects, like an oral medication might. As an active family with allergies, we use a lot of it."
5 Instant Ice Pack
When there's no ice maker at the ready, break-and- shake ice packs that don't require refrigeration can be handy for injuries and stings. "Just make sure you check the expiration date once in a while," Doperak says. "If it's been sitting in your bag for a year, it may not activate."
Doperak loves this NSAID topical. Unlike pills, it targets its anti-inflammatory action to the site of your pain. The brand Voltaren became available over the counter last year, after more than a decade as a prescription-only treatment for arthritis pain. "It offers great relief for sprained ankles, muscle aches, and more," Doperak says.
7 Antifungal Spray
To avoid the annoying itch of athlete's foot, keep feet dry and clean. "I suggest always having an extra pair of dry socks ready," Doperak says. To treat it, look for the active ingredient miconazole nitrate. "I like the spray for feet, which feels less goopy in a sock than cream," Doperak adds.
8 Sporty (Sweat-Proof) Sunscreen
Choose a broad-spectrum product (meaning it protects against both aging UVA and burning UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30. "For faces, I like one of the oil-free sunblocks, like Neutrogena," Doperak says. "It doesn't leave that greasy layer." And reapply frequently, even if your formula is water- or sweat-proof. Doperak recommends starting with a lotion, which gives optimal coverage, and then touching up with a spray as the day goes on.
What to Add if You Have Toddlers or School-Age Kids
1 Nasal Bulb
For littles who haven't mastered the nose blow, administer a squirt of saline, then suction it out with a nasal bulb syringe. "Humidity helps clear passages too, so it's great to do this in a warm tub," Williamson says. Nonsqueamish caregivers can opt for the NoseFrida nasal aspirator called the Snotsucker, Duffy says.
2 Colloidal Oatmeal
Found in brands such as Aveeno, "it's very effective at treating childhood eczema and dry, itchy skin," Duffy says. Colloidal oatmeal comes in ointments, creams, and bath packets.
3 Kid-Friendly Bandages
When evaluating the legion of colors, sizes, and superheroes on the drug- store shelves, look for bandages labeled "flexible." "Your kid is going to be running around two seconds later, and you want it to stay on," Williamson says. She recommends getting a variety pack of different sizes.
4 Zip-Top Bags
To reduce swelling and pain (head bumps, toothaches, sprains), make your own ice pack. "Keep quart- and gallon-size bags on hand," Williamson says. "Throw in some ice and enough water so it's spread out over the entire area of the bag, then zip it up tight and cover it with a washcloth." Your DIY pack will mold to the injury and save you from sacrificing that $4 bag of organic peas.
5 Poison Control Number
Save 800-222-1222 in your phone and post the number on your fridge. "I don't recommend you keep syrup of ipecac or other products to induce vomiting," Williamson says. "You tend to do more harm than good if the child ends up aspirating what they've just swallowed."
6 Electrolyte Replacement
The barfing and diarrhea that come with stomach bugs, the norovirus, and other grade-school ailments are the body's effort to flush the bug. In most cases, it's better to let the symptoms run their course than treat them with antidiarrhea or antinausea medicine. The biggest concern is dehydration. Stash a bottle of electrolyte replacement, like Pedialyte, in the pantry to replenish electrolytes. (Adults can use it too.)
Look for a broad-spectrum product with a minimum SPF of 30, Williamson says. "The thicker the better—if it turns your kid white, then it's very effective," Williamson says. "I like the brand Babyganics. It has good coverage but is easy to wash off at the end of the day."
What to Add if You're Empty-Nesters
Older adults become more prone to heartburn and acid indigestion. If you overdo it on the pepperoni, Partha advises reaching for antacids, which contain either calcium carbonate (Tums) or magnesium hydroxide (Mylanta) to neutralize stomach acid. "If you have heartburn day after day, talk to your doctor about trying a daily medication to help block the production of stomach acid, such as an over-the-counter proton pump inhibitor or H2 blocker, like Pepcid or Zantac," Partha says.
3 Dry Skin Cream
"Start from the inside out by drinking plenty of water," Partha says. After your shower or bath, apply moisturizing cream on damp skin. "Look for products without strong perfumes, as these additives might be irritating," Partha says. "I like Vanicream because it's good for sensi- tive skin." Don't forget the SPF 30
(or higher) daily sunscreen. "Practicing in Arizona, I see a lot of sun damage and skin cancer," Partha says.
4 Pain-Relieving Patches
Adhesive patches are a targeted way to treat painful areas. "Salonpas patches are great for muscle aches and sore backs," Partha says. "Menthol is an active ingredient, and they're anti-inflammatory."
5 Eye Drops
These are handy for soothing screen eyes. "When my eyes get dry, I find myself needing my reading glasses more frequently," Partha says.
6 Dental-Repair Wax
Losing a hunk of tooth when the dentist is closed is the stuff of nightmares. "If a chunk of filling falls out, dental wax can temporarily protect the nerve or smooth sharp corners," Duffy says.