Taking medication on holiday: Is your over-the-counter medicine legal?

Some medicines which are freely available in Canada could be illegal elsewhere. Here’s how to stay healthy – and out of trouble – when you travel abroad.

Travel insurance helps to guard against unexpected problems on holiday. But what about health issues which we can predict? Did you know that some medicines which are freely available in Canada may be illegal in the country you plan to visit? If you take prescription or over-the-counter medicines on a regular basis it’s worth doing some pre-trip preparation. Find out what you need to know to stay healthy – and out of trouble – when you travel abroad.

Are your drugs legal?
To obtain that popular painkiller you grab off the shelf at home you might need a prescription from a doctor in your holiday destination. Worse yet, your prescription might contain a banned substance. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s Rough Guide to Travel advises travellers to ensure their medication is legal in the countries to which they are travelling. Here are a few examples of countries where the rules on medication may be unexpectedly different:

Japan has a strictly enforced anti-stimulant drugs law. This means that the possession or use of Vicks inhalers and some prescription or over-the-counter medicines (such as common allergy and sinus medications) are illegal. Check with the Japanese Embassy in your country prior to departure if you are uncertain.

Singapore: Ibuprofen is available from the local corner store in North America, but if you want this painkiller while visiting Singapore the government requires you to carry a prescription. More information about controlled substances can be found through the Health Sciences Authority.

United States: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada warns that even personal medication may be subject to US drug importation laws and regulations. For instance, an individual traveller is permitted to bring in a 90-day supply of their own medication – but only if the drug is not available in the United States. Carrying larger quantities might suggest to the customs officer that you plan to sell the drug. The U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA)’s Traveler Alert page provides full details.

Avoiding transit troubles
Transporting your medication can also be a challenge. Most advice recommends packing all your medication inside your carry-on bag so that you still have vital pills if your checked-in or hold luggage goes missing. The World Health Organization also suggests you have a back-up supply of medication in your hold luggage.

If you are taking prescription medication make sure that you have a letter from your doctor and the original prescription. Keep the medicines in their original packaging rather than transferring them to travel containers. In their advice on travelling with medication Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada says any medication is likely to be closely scrutinised by customs officials so don’t try passing through customs or security checks with unidentified tablets or drugs. Remember that vitamins, minerals, herbal products and homeopathic products may be sold as over-the-counter drugs in one country but may need a prescription or be illegal in another.