I love to travel, and experience has taught me the benefits of packing light. But no matter how lightly I travel, I always carry along an herbal first-aid kit. Being prepared with my favorite remedies gives me peace of mind on the road or trail, and keeps me from having to search out herbal products in an unfamiliar town — or from having to resort to padding my heels with mullein leaves to ease the agony of a broken blister while on a backpacking trip.
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to put my first-aid kit to use, from treating blisters and bug bites to motion sickness and colds. I choose simple, multipurpose remedies and store them in a small padded nylon lunch box that’s always ready to toss into the car. For backpacking trips, I pare my kit down to arnica gel, echinacea, peppermint and chamomile tea bags, crystallized ginger, insect repellant, a tin of herbal salve, a tiny bottle of lavender essential oil, and an assortment of bandages and moleskin.
With the following herbs and essential oils, you should be able to treat just about any common condition you are likely to encounter in your travels.
The Herbal First Aid Kit: What to Buy
These are my favorite remedies — the ones I consider indispensable for a travel first-aid kit. All of the remedies are available at any well-stocked health-food store and by mail-order. Be sure to buy pure essential oils, not fragrance oils. To prevent breakage, wrap glass bottles in small pieces of thick flannel.
• Aloe vera gel: Cooling and healing, aloe vera (Aloe vera) soothes the inflammation of sunburn and common kitchen scalds and burns.
• Arnica gel or cream: Arnica (Arnica montana) flowers have anti-inflammatory and circulation-stimulating properties; the gel or cream is excellent for sore muscles, sprains, strains and bruises. Do not apply arnica to broken skin.
• Calendula-comfrey salve: The bright yellow-orange blossoms of calendula (Calendula officinalis) have astringent, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) contains allantoin, a compound that stimulates the growth of new tissue and helps heal wounds.
• Chamomile tea bags: With its delicious distinctive flavor, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) makes a tasty tea. Gentle enough for children, chamomile has mild sedative, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It promotes relaxation, relieves indigestion and, when applied topically, soothes skin irritations.
• Citronella-based insect repellant: Most herbal repellants contain citronella, a pungent citrus-scented essential oil distilled from an aromatic grass that grows in southern Asia. Herbal insect repellants work well, as long as they’re applied liberally and frequently (as often as every two hours).
• Echinacea liquid extract: Rich in immune-stimulating chemicals, echinacea (Echinacea spp.) can be used for any type of infection. Liquid extracts are the most versatile because they can be used both internally and externally.
• Elderberry capsules or liquid extract: Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is essential for stopping a cold or flu from ruining your vacation. The berries contain compounds that prevent cold and flu viruses from invading and infecting cells. If you’re flying or otherwise potentially exposed to viruses, taking elderberry is a good preventive. If you do come down with a cold or flu, taking elderberry can hasten your recovery time.
• Eleuthero standardized extract: An excellent adaptogen, eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) can help prevent jet lag; it was even used by Soviet cosmonauts to help them adjust to space travel. Standardized extracts guarantee that you’re getting sufficient amounts of eleutherosides, which herbalists consider to be the herb’s active compounds.
• Eucalyptus essential oil: A potent antibiotic and antiviral, eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is excellent for treating colds, flus and sinus infections when used as a steam inhalation. Dilute with oil or witch hazel extract before applying to the skin, and do not take internally.
• Ginger capsules, tea bags and crystallized ginger: The antispasmodic and gas-relieving properties of ginger (Zingiber officinale) soothe digestive upsets. Ginger also has been proven to relieve motion sickness better than Dramamine, the conventional drug treatment.
• Goldenseal capsules or powder: A powerful antimicrobial, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is effective against a variety of microorganisms that cause traveler’s diarrhea. The powder has antiseptic properties and can be sprinkled onto cuts or wounds to stop bleeding. Do not take goldenseal internally during pregnancy.
• Grindelia poison oak/ivy tincture or spray: Grindelia (Grindelia camporum), also known as gumweed, contains resins and tannins that help to relieve the pain and itching of plant rashes. It’s available as a tincture and also as a spray specifically for treating poison oak/poison ivy rashes.
• Lavender essential oil: Virtually an all-purpose remedy, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has sed- ative, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. It’s helpful for anxiety, insomnia, headaches, wounds and burns. For most people, lavender essential oil can be applied directly to the skin. Do not take more than 1 to 2 drops internally.
• Laxative herbal tea bags: Travel constipation is a common complaint. Most herbal laxative teas rely on senna (Cassia senna), which contains compounds called anthraquinones that stimulate intestinal activity. Because senna has a bitter, unpleasant flavor, it’s often combined with tasty herbs such as cinnamon, fennel, licorice and ginger.
• Peppermint essential oil and tea bags: With its high concentration of menthol, peppermint (Mentha xpiperita) soothes an upset stomach, clears sinuses and curbs itching from insect bites. If you have sensitive skin, dilute peppermint oil before applying. Taken internally, peppermint may aggravate heartburn.
• Valerian tincture: The sedative properties of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) make it useful for relieving anxiety, insomnia and tension; it’s also a mild pain reliever.
• Witch hazel extract: Distilled witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has mild astringent, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, making it useful for insect bites and skin irritations. It’s also an excellent base for diluting essential oils for a variety of simple, topical herbal first-aid remedies. Do not take it internally.
Additional First-Aid Essentials
• Adhesive bandage strips: Various sizes, including butterfly closure bandages.
• Alcohol: Small plastic bottle for removing poison oak/ivy oils from the skin.
• Bandage materials: Sterile gauze pads, a roll of gauze, adhesive bandage tape.
• Cosmetic clay: With drying and drawing properties, clay is useful for healing skin rashes and insect bites. Store in a small plastic container.
• Elastic bandage: For sprains or strains.
• Electrolyte replacement: Powdered drink packets such as Emergen-C.
• Moleskin: Blister treatment.
• Scissors: Small pair for cutting bandages, adhesive tape, moleskin.
• Thermometer: Instant-read type.
• Tweezers: For removing ticks and splinters.
• Waterless hand sanitizer: Travel-size bottle.
Quick Natural Remedies for Common Conditions
• Drink chamomile tea, 3 cups a day.
• Take valerian tincture, 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon up to 3 times daily.
• Take a bath with 10 drops of lavender essential oil or place a drop of lavender oil on a tissue and inhale as desired.
• To dry a blister, soak a gauze pad in witch hazel, lay it over the blister and cover with an adhesive bandage. After blister has broken, wash with a mixture of echinacea extract diluted with an equal part of water. Finally, apply calendula-comfrey salve and cover with an adhesive bandage.
• Immediately apply ice to relieve pain and swelling.
• Apply arnica cream or gel twice daily.
• Immediately immerse the affected area in cold water until the burning sensation subsides. Then apply aloe vera gel mixed with lavender essential oil (5 drops of lavender oil mixed with 1 tablespoon of aloe vera gel).
• For sunburn, soak in a cool bath with 10 drops of lavender essential oil.
Colds and Flus:
• Take 1 dropperful of echinacea extract four times a day until symptoms subside.
• Take 1 dropperful of elderberry extract four times a day until symptoms subside.
• To relieve congestion and soothe a sore throat, drink hot ginger tea with honey.
• To ease congestion, add 2 drops each of eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils to hot water; inhale the steam vapors.
• Add 1 dropperful of echinacea extract to 1⁄2 cup of water as an antiseptic wash.
• To stop bleeding, sprinkle goldenseal powder directly into the wound and apply pressure with a clean cloth.
• Apply a salve made from calendula-comfrey — only after a scab has formed, to prevent trapping bacteria.
• Replenish lost fluids and soothe the digestive tract with chamomile or ginger tea.
• For diarrhea caused by infectious microorganisms, take 1 capsule of goldenseal three times daily for up to two weeks.
• To boost immunity and fight infection, take 1 dropperful of echinacea four times daily.
• Drink chamomile tea as often as desired.
• For more severe headaches, take 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon of valerian root extract; repeat every two hours until pain abates.
• Take a warm bath with 10 drops of lavender essential oil.
• Massage 2 drops of diluted peppermint essential oil onto temples, forehead and neck. Keep away from eyes.
• Sip warm chamomile, peppermint or ginger tea.
• Chew on a piece of crystallized (candied) ginger.
Insect bites and stings:
• Cleanse the bite with echinacea extract.
• Apply a drop of undiluted peppermint or lavender oil to relieve itching and as an antiseptic.
• Mix clay with enough water to make a paste, and apply to the bites to relieve itching and draw out toxins.
• Drink a cup of warm chamomile tea.
• For stronger sedative action, take up to 1 teaspoon of valerian tincture before bed.
• Take a warm bath with 10 drops of lavender essential oil.
• Take eleuthero (100 mg of standardized extract) three times daily for one week or more before traveling and for one week or longer following the flight.
• Take 1 to 2 capsules of dried ginger every 15 minutes until symptoms abate.
• To prevent motion sickness, take 6 to 8 capsules of powdered ginger about 45 minutes before departing.
• To calm a queasy stomach, chew on a piece of crystallized ginger.
• Immediately wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and cool water, or sponge with alcohol to remove the oily resin.
• If a rash occurs, spray with grindelia extract several times a day.
Strains and sprains:
• Immediately elevate and apply an ice pack to the affected area to reduce swelling and inflammation. After 24 hours, apply hot compresses to increase circulation and speed healing.
• Soak in a hot bath with 5 drops of eucalyptus essential oil.
• Apply arnica cream or gel to the affected area three times daily.
Herbal First-Aid Kit Resources
Creation Herbal, www.creationherbal.com, Comfrey-calendula salve
Lewey’s Eco-Blends, www.buzzoff.us, Buzz-Off natural insect repellant
Red Moon Herbs, www.redmoonherbs.com, Herbal first-aid kit
— Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1001 Natural Remedies and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).