Keeping a first aid kit to hand is always a good idea, whether you're at home, at work, or in the car. It's especially important to pack one every time you travel abroad, and essential if you're planning a trip to Africa. Africa is a vast continent, and the quality of available medical care differs hugely depending on where you're going, and what you'll be doing whilst you're there.
However, most African adventures include at least some time in rural areas, where your access to a doctor or even a pharmacy is likely to be limited. This is especially true if you're planning on traveling independently, instead of with a tour.
As a consequence, it's vital that you are able to treat yourself - whether it's for something minor (like everyday scrapes and cuts); or for something major (like the onset of fever). With that being said, it's important to remember that a first aid kit is only meant to provide an intermediary solution. If you suffer from severe illness whilst in Africa, seek professional medical attention as quickly as possible. While the conditions in African hospitals are often very different to those in the West, doctors are generally competent - especially when it comes to tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever.
Below, you'll find a comprehensive list of all the items you should consider including in your Africa travel first aid kit. Some may only be appropriate for certain regions (like malaria medication, which is exclusively required in countries with malaria). Others are essential no matter where you're headed. If you haven't done so already, don't forget to check which vaccinations you will need for your upcoming adventure, as these must be organised well in advance.
First Aid Packing List
- Prescription Medicines: If you currently take any prescription medicines, make sure to take an adequate supply with you. Depending on where you're going, it could be difficult to find replacements if you run out whilst traveling.
- Malaria Medication: If you're traveling to a malarial area, it is essential that you take anti-malaria prophylactics. There are several different types available - ask your doctor which is best for you and for the area you're traveling to.
- Prescription Antibiotics: Infections can be incredibly painful, and if you're far from a doctor's surgery or hospital, you'll want to be able to treat them yourself. Your doctor at home should be able to prescribe a generic antibiotic capable of treating a wide range of ailments.
- Antidiarrheal Medication: Travelers' diarrhea is a common affliction in Africa, and one that usually runs it course without requiring medical assistance. However, antidiarrheal medication (e.g. loperamide) is handy to have for those long car, bus or train rides.
- Oral Rehydration Salts: These are used to help replace fluids lost as a result of diarrhea, therefore preventing dehydration. If you have any left at the end of your trip, give them to someone who may be able to use them locally, as dehydration is a common killer in Africa.
- Iodine Tablets: If you're heading off the beaten track to an area without available bottled water, iodine tablets help to make tap or borehole water safe to drink. They don't taste good though, so bring powdered fruit juice as well to help make them more palatable.
- Syringes and Sterile Needles: Most hospitals now use sterile needles, but if you're worried, consider bringing your own (especially if you plan to visit exceptionally poor or rural areas). Clean needles help prevent infection on a continent rife with HIV/ AIDS.
- Antihistamines: When traveling abroad, you never know what you might be allergic to. Antihistamines help minimise allergic reactions, and come in a variety of different forms. If you have severe allergies that require the use of an EpiPen, make sure to bring it with you.
- Antibacterial Medicine: Cuts and sores become infected quickly in Africa, especially if you're headed somewhere tropical. Antibacterial cream, powder or ointment is therefore essential, while antiseptic hand-gel or hand-wipes also help stop the spread of infection.
- Thermometer: Many of Africa's more serious diseases (including malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever) are indicated by a high temperature. Carrying a decent digital temperature with you makes it easier to diagnose the onset of fever.
- Insect Repellent: All of the diseases mentioned above are transmitted by mosquitoes (as well as a whole host of other illnesses). Help minimise the risk of infection by using insect repellent. The most effective brands are those that use DEET.
- Painkillers and Anti-Inflammatories: Make sure to pack the everyday medicines that help you deal with general aches and pains (e.g. Aspirin, Tylenol). If left untreated, even a simple headache has the power to make your time abroad miserable.
- Sun Block & Aloe Gel: Africa is home to some of the world's hottest places, so sun block is essential for preventing sunburn. If you do get burned, aloe gel helps to relieve the discomfort and soothe damaged skin cells.
- Basic First Aid Items: These include all of the things that you might need to treat minor injuries, including bandages, Band-Aids, gauze, scissors, safety pins, adhesive tape, Q-tips and tweezers (for removing painful splinters).
- Basic Medications: These are your household staples and will depend on what ailments you're particularly prone to. Examples include motion sickness tablets, decongestants, throat lozenges, cough medicines and anti-fungal creams.
In the event that you can't self-medicate, you may have to seek professional medical help. Many African countries have state hospitals where one can receive free treatment, but these are often unsanitary, ill-equipped and drastically understaffed. The best option is to seek treatment at a private hospital, but these are expensive, and many won't treat patients without up-front payment or proof of insurance. Comprehensive travel insurance is therefore a must.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 18th 2016.
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