Tips for Traveling With Medicines & Medical Devices

By Jessie Beck
Packing pills for when you travel

Medical complications have a way of, well, complicating travel. Between the TSA’s myriad of regulations, customs officials, and figuring out just how to pack your medicines and medical devices, it’s definitely not an easy mess to make sense of.

However, after talking to travelers who need to carry medicines and medical devices, diving down a crazy rabbit hole of travel forums, I’ve uncovered answers to the biggest questions on traveling with medicines and medical devices.

From traveling with a CPAP machine to understanding TSA’s regulations with epipens and injections, it’s all here.

Medicines: What to Bring & How To Pack

Almost every traveler will need to pack medications with them at some point or another. Whether it’s birth control, Advil, or something only a doctor can prescribe, we’re all likely to include some in our packing lists as we travel.

That said, carrying on Ibuprofen, or any other over the counter medication, is usually pretty straightforward. Prescription medications are where things can get complicated. To demystify some traveler’s concerns, let’s cover a few common questions then get to the medication packing tips.

TSA Regulations

Whether you’re packing pills, liquids, or injections a good rule of thumb is to understand that:

  • Medications must be clearly labeled carry proof of some sort (i.e. a letter from your doctor) that it has been prescribed to you
  • Medication is subject to additional screening
  • Liquids are subject to the 3.4 ounce rule even medications

That said, some travelers might still have a few extra questions and want to make sure they’re playing by the rules (because no one wants to get something as essential as medicine confiscated). 

On Containers

Do medications need to be in their original containers to fly? No, the TSA does not require medications to be in their original containers, but medications must be clearly labeled and you must have proof that a doctor had prescribed it to you.

My mom, for example, will consolidate her pills into one bottle and keep photographs of all her prescriptions on her phone.

One caveat: If you’re flying within the U.S. you may want to read up on the state laws of your departure and arrival destination for this one.

Limits to Medications While Flying

There are no limits to the number of pills or the amount of a prescribed medication a traveler brings, so long as they’re labeled and you have proof of prescription. That means you can bring an unlimited amount of pills in your carry on bag.

Liquids & Injectables

Liquid medications and injectables are subject to the same 3.4 oz rule as your toiletries. They too must be labeled and, if prescribed, you’ll need that doctor’s note. For both medications and injectables, your medications may be subject to additional screening.
If you’re using freezer packs, they’ll need to be solid at the time of inspection. Otherwise, more inspections (seems to be a common theme here).

Diabetic Equipment

For diabetic equipment, again, label your items clearly and keep the original pharmaceutical labels on them. However, there’s an additional, yet tricky, rule to note. Peter Greenberg explains it best:

“If you are carrying insulin on the plane, then the vials or preloaded syringes must be labeled clearly with the original pharmacy label. If you carry vials and need syringes, you may carry as many unused syringes as needed, but if you are carrying empty syringes you must have insulin with you.

For pumps, ask for a private screening.

For more specifics on TSA’s regulations on traveling with medicine, for additional details, read this TSA blog post on it.

Packing Medications

Okay, so now that we’ve gotten the TSA regulations out of the way — how do you pack the darn stuff? Lucky for you, we have a few tips for packing medications:

  • Split up liquid medications into multiple containers if you need more than 3.4 ounces
  • Keep liquids and injectables in their own, leakproof container: Even something as simple as a ziplock will do the trick
  • Keep a digital record of your prescriptions: A photo in your phone is good, but sending the photos as an email to yourself or storing them in the cloud is even better
  • Put medicines in small, travel friendly containers: Personally, I like this no-frills Vitaminder Pill Pocket for short trips. They also have a larger, 60 pill version

Keep them in an outside pocket on your bag. You’ll want to be able to dig ’em out easily for all of these potential extra inspections.

For Longer Trips

Stock up and plan for buffer time. For some prescriptions, you’ll need to do a special doctor’s visit to get prescriptions for more than 3-months at a time. Plan well in advance and consider alternatives.

Personally, this was particularly problematic when I studied abroad in an uber-Catholic country and needed 9 months worth of birth control (I ended up switching to Depo-Provera temporarily).

Traveling With Medical Devices

Now, on to the next question: Can you travel with medical devices in your carry on?

Yes; like medications, you’re allowed to bring a personal medical electronic device (PMED) on the plane, but with a few stipulations:

  • Carry proof that it’s necessary: In the form of a medical device/notification card
  • Expect extra screening (but you knew that already
  • Consider a battery-operated portable version: Most airlines cannot provide an electric source to plug in. If they do, you’ll need a DC adaptor; check the airlines’ website for specific regulations.

My two big tips for traveling with medical devices would be to look up the specific regulations for medical devices your airline has and to allow yourself plenty of time to go through security. MiFlight is a handy app that will tell you the average line wait time in any airport worldwide, but you should still budget more time than the average passenger.

What is a Medical Notification Card?

The TSA developed medical notification cards, which can be downloaded in this PDF, that notify TSA agents that you have a medical condition that requires special equipment. Though it doesn’t exempt you from screening, it does, theoretically, help the process.

Do Medical Devices Count As a Carry On?

So long as your medical device isn’t its own personal carrier, pretty much all major airlines won’t count your medical device as one of your personal, or carry on, items. Meaning, you’d be allowed to travel with one carry on, one personal item, and the medical device.

CPAP, Breast-Pumps, & Other In-Flight Equipment

If you need to travel with a CPAP machine and want to use it in-flight, your best option is to buy or rent a battery operated travel CPAP machine. Otherwise, you might not be able to use it. For shorter flights — like L.A. to Portland — where you don’t plan on sleeping, you could opt to rent a CPAP machine in your destination. CPAP Supply USA will provide travelers with both CPAP rentals and portable oxygen rentals — though, they’re not exactly cheap.

Same goes for breast pumps — if you plan to use them on the plane, they’ll have to be battery operated or manual. According to Margaret Hargrove, the Parenting Reviews Editor at Best Products, there are quite a few great travel breast pumps out there. From the stylish Medela Pump in Style ($300) to the budget-friendly The First Years Double Breast Pump ($70), she’s uncovered 10 of 2016’s best.

Oxygen & Respiratory Equipment

According to FAA regulations, only pre-approved portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) will be allowed on the flight. Period. Others are considered hazardous and will not be allowed.

Somewhat annoyingly, you’ll have to notify your airline in advance if you’re bringing a POC on the plane with you. Most airlines will also require that you also check in with the gate agent about using your POC on board. Required or not, though, it’s always a good idea to swing by and let them know.

Inogen, one of the FAA approved POCs out there has a full article outlining the steps you’ll have to take to bring one of their POCs on a flight, as well as a list of airlines that allow them on board.

Casts, Crutches, & Wheelchairs

Passengers with casts will be asked to go through a cast X-ray. Similarly, wheelchairs and crutches will be screened. For persons with disabilities, you can always ask for special screening or assistance through security — though airlines recommend requesting this in as far advance as possible (in other words, not last minute).

Travel Insurance

Though this isn’t necessarily a packing tip, travelers with wheelchairs can, in fact, find travel insurance plans that cover loss, or damage, of wheelchairs and other pre-existing medical conditions.

Allianz Insurance, a leader in travel insurance, is an example of travel insurance includes such benefits in their coverage. John, of Wheelchair Travel, has been using them to insure his travels and had nothing but positive things to say about his experiences with Allianz.

Although each medical condition and medical device has the potential for extra regulations or checks with TSA, the main things to remember when traveling with medications, or medical equipment, are:

  • Carry proof that the medicine, or device, is yours
  • Label items clearly
  • Be sure devices are battery operated, or manual, and FAA approved
  • Expect extra screenings & allow time for them
  • Let TSA and, depending on the device, flight attendants know about medical devices you’re bringing on board
  • Private security screenings are always available upon request