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.)

Read on for doctor-recommended 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.

Acetaminophen: A good first choice for treating headaches, pain, and fever, it's gentler on the stomach than ibuprofen. Tylenol is a well-known brand.

Ibuprofen: Sold under brand names like Motrin and Advil, it can be used by family members 6 months 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, California.

Saline Nasal Drops, Rinse, or Spray: For nasal congestion, our experts like medical-grade salt water. Williamson says, "The best way to clean out passages is by irrigating them with a saline solution."

Honey: To combat a cough in anyone older than 2, our doctors advise turning 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 in warm water and sip. According to Susan Duffy, MD, MPH, professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School, many families like a drugstore option such as Zarbee's Naturals, which features honey as the main ingredient.

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 the 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, Indu Partha, MD, clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, recommends a non-drowsy 24-hour formulation containing loratadine (like Claritin).

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.

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.

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. Williamson says to daub some on a dry, itchy scab, too.

Petroleum-Based Antibiotic Ointment. Our experts agree: The best way to clean a cut is with good old soap and running water. For extra protection against infection, rub on a broad-spectrum antibiotic cream like Polysporin. Duffy notes to watch for irritation: In some people, antibiotic creams can cause a local allergic reaction.

Saline Solution. Keep a big bottle handy for flushing sand and other foreign particles out of eyes.

Tweezers. To extract ticks and splinters, Duffy recommends stocking a sharp-tipped pair. (Her favorite 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.

Thermometer. "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.

Add These if You're an Active, Super-Sporty Family

Additional Bandages and Gauze. Every household needs bandages, but active ones 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.

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. Coban is a popular brand. "You wind it around the limb, and it keeps a big bandage or gauze in place," Doperak says.

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 can help you get the hang of it—or check out our guide on how to use a neti pot safely.)

Steroid Nasal Spray. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, Doperak advises getting relief from a nasal spray such as fluticasone such as 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."

Instant Ice Pack. When there's no ice maker at the ready, break-and-shake ice packs that don't require refrigeration are 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."

Diclofenac. Doperak loves this NSAID topical. "It offers great relief for sprained ankles, muscle aches, and more," he says. Unlike pills, it targets anti-inflammatory action to the site of your pain. The over-the-counter-brand Voltaren is now available after more than a decade as a prescription-only treatment for arthritis pain.

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. But if you didn't manage to prevent it, look for the active ingredient miconazole nitrate to treat it. "I like the spray for feet, which feels less goopy in a sock than cream," Doperak adds.

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 recommends. "It doesn't leave that greasy layer." And reapply frequently, even if your formula is water- or sweat-proof. He says to start with a lotion, which gives optimal coverage, and then touch up with a spray as the day goes on.

Add These if You Have Toddlers or School-Age Kids

Nasal Bulb. For littles who haven't mastered the nose blow, administer a squirt of saline, and 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. For non-squeamish caregivers, Duffy recommends the NoseFrida nasal aspirator called the Snotsucker.

Colloidal Oatmeal. Found in brands such as Aveeno, Duffy says, "It's very effective at treating childhood eczema and dry, itchy skin." Colloidal oatmeal comes in ointments, creams, and bath packets.

Kid-Friendly Bandages. When evaluating the legion of colors, sizes, and superheroes on the drug- store shelves, look for bandages labeled "flexible." Williamson says, "Your kid is going to be running around two seconds later, and you want it to stay on." She recommends getting a variety pack of different sizes.

Zip-Top Bags. To reduce swelling and pain (from head bumps, toothaches, and 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." This DIY pack molds to the injury and saves you from sacrificing a $4 bag of organic peas.

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."

Electrolyte Replacement. Whether it's vomiting and diarrhea, the norovirus, or another grade-school ailment, the biggest concern about our body's effort to flush a bug or virus is dehydration, so stash a bottle of electrolyte replacement, like Pedialyte, in the pantry. (Adults can use it, too.) In most cases, it's better to let the symptoms run their course than to treat them with anti-diarrhea or anti-nausea medicine.

Sunscreen. Williamson advises looking for a broad-spectrum product with a minimum SPF of 30. "The thicker the better—if it turns your kid white, then it's very effective," she says. "I like the brand Babyganics. It has good coverage but is easy to wash off at the end of the day."

Add These if You're Empty-Nesters

Antacids. As we get older, we're more prone to heartburn and acid indigestion. If you overdo it on the pepperoni, Partha advises reaching for antacids, which contain 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," she says.

Bulking Agents. The best medicine for constipation is prevention—exercising, eating fruits and vegetables, and drinking water. But for an occasional assist, Partha suggests a high-fiber agent like Metamucil, which features psyllium husk as the active ingredient.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles