How to build a better first aid kit

Ready-made first aid kits are a good start, but tweak yours to reflect the nature of your destination, and your medicinal needs, says Dr. Raj Bhardwaj.

Store bought kits are a good start, but it helps to customize

Ever wonder what you need in a first aid kit? Calgary's Dr. Raj Bhardwaj has you covered. (CBC)

What's in your first aid kit?

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, who appears weekly on the Calgary Eyeopener to dispense common sense medical advice, spoke Tuesday to host David Gray about how to pack a first aid kit.

Travel season is right around the corner. And while you're booking time off, buying flights and reserving campsites...Don't forget to also prepare a travel first aid kit, too. Dr. Raj Bhardwaj is regular health contributor on the Eyeopener. He joins us now with a peek of what's inside his first aid kit. 8:42

Q: What do you think of ready-made first aid kits?

A: They're a good start. They're just so generic. They really only serve as a basic kit. [The best bet might be] buying one of those, and then tweaking it for your own needs. Are you going hiking for the weekend? Are you going camping? Are you going to an all-inclusive resort? Are you going to need to treat frostbite or sunburn? You can tweak the kit for any of those things.

The three or four things that I always have in my first aid kit [include] something for skin problems, something for injuries like sprains and strains, and then I think about medications in general supplies.

Q. I don't like the sling, the scissors or the tape that never sticks that come in most first aid kits. You?

A: That's one thing I always remove — the sling. I always remove the scissors and replace with a Swiss Army knife with scissors. I always replace the tape with good medical tape. These are excellent observations.

Q. What about dealing with skin problems?

A: Think about cuts and scrapes, think about blisters and burns, and think about insect bites. Those are probably the most common things.

If you get some sort of an injury — some sort of wound —  you're going to want to clean it first. So if you've got soap and water, great. But if you don't, [add some] antiseptic wipes or hand sanitizer in your kit. After cleaning it, if you're bleeding, you're going to want to apply some direct pressure, not just a Band-Aid. So some sort of gauze pads. If you don't like getting other people's blood on you, then maybe [bring] some gloves.

Once you've covered the wound, and you protect it, you might need some antibiotic ointment. If it's a small wound, then the only dressing you're going to need is a regular Band-Aid. For blisters and burns though, I splurge on the fancy blister Band-Aids — or a sheet of moleskin, if you want to prevent the blisters and stuff.

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj talked about how to build a customized first aid kit on the Eyeopener. (Dr. Raj Bhardwaj)

For larger wounds, you're going to need those larger gauze pads and then tape them in place with good medical tape, not hockey tape. And then you're going to need some scissors to cut the dressing to size. So, like I said, I take out the crappy scissors and put in some good Swiss army knife scissors.

Q: What about sprains and strains?

A: If you've got the room — if you're car camping and don't mind spending the money — then a few of those chemical cold packs that you squeeze and it gets cold for 20 minutes. But they're not reusable, they are pretty expensive, so I don't like those. I just use a medium-sized Ziploc bag and I find some cold water somewhere. No need for ice even — just cold water and throw it in the bag and throw it on your wound.

Also, a lot of those first aid kits have tensor bandages. Those are really bulky — and those are unitools.

They're like having something in the kitchen you can only use for one thing and one thing only. I don't like unitools, so I get rid of the tensor bandages and I buy this other stuff.  It's a non-stick elastic, self-adherent wrap.

So if you've ever seen animals that get IVs or splints and get that vet wrap around them — same stuff, only it's not called vet wrap for humans.

If you search self-adherent wrap, there's a couple different brand names [that come up]. But it's somewhere between $2 and $8 a roll, and it is super useful for sprains. 

Q: How does a doctor pack his First Aid Kit?

A: I don't put a lot of medications and stuff in there. I might have slightly better scissors than you because I know where to look when I buy scissors and tweezers. But most of the stuff that I have [in my first aid kit], you can get. 

 I'm thinking pain meds, allergy meds, stomach-issue type stuff — mainly because I'm a doctor, I think about other people I'm travelling with.

In terms of pain meds, I just do ibuprofen and acetaminophen. In terms of allergies, some antihistamine. I'd go with whatever you're used to, whether that's Benadryl or a once daily, non-drowsy antihistamine.

Here's a doctor-y tip. Instead of the Gravol, for nausea, there's this prescription med called Ondansetron. That's the generic name. Ondansetron came out years and years ago, and we used it as an anti-nausea med for people getting chemotherapy and we found it to be incredibly effective.

It comes in a pill but also a dissolvable tablet that you stick on your tongue and it dissolves. So even if you're actively throwing up, just stick one in your cheek. We were on the Great Barrier Reef [in Australia], and I got sick from being on the water so long, and I stuck one in my cheek, and 20 minutes later, I was ready for lunch. It was fantastic. Dr. Stephen Freedman, an emergency doctor at the Alberta Children's Hospital, reminded me that we should only ever use one dose before seeking medical attention. Repeat doses of Ondansetron can be dangerous.

It is a prescription drug. Not for everybody. But talk to your doctor about getting some. 

For travellers' diarrhea, I don't carry  a lot of antibiotics or anything. I just pack Pepto-Bismol. For mild diarrhea, that's all you need, as long as you don't have any kidney problems, bleeding problems or aspirin allergies.

And depending on who you're travelling with — if you're travelling with parents — throw some aspirin in your first aid kit, so if they get chest pains or something weird, get them to chew a couple aspirin, in case it's a heart attack. [And call 911]

If you're travelling with kids, bring some dosing cups and some dosing syringes, and think about liquid medications.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener