An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Survival Kit for Grown-Up Kids

Things to buy or do (so you don’t have to call your parents) when you’re sick

Hey, Boys and Girls! First time living on your own? How’s your new apartment? Got a job? Got ESPN and MTV? Good! Got a thermometer? Got insurance? What?! 

OK. Whether you’re starting your career or away at school, let’s see if we can help you avoid the frantic pitch of your mother’s voice that first time you call home sick. First, print this list so you’ll know what to do and have on hand in the middle of the night when mortality comes knocking at your door. 

Then, take pleasure in another perk of independent adulthood: YOU get to choose your own nurse practitioner or physician this time. (In other words, as much as your pediatrician loves you, it’s time to move on, man.)

Medicine cabinet musts, how and when to use them

Scrapes, sprains, aches:

Adhesive bandages:
the cloth, stretchy kind in all sizes and Tefla non-stick gauze bandages for moist wounds like road rash. 

An “Ace” bandage: the long roll of cloth for minor sprains. Remember not to wrap your foot/knee/elbow too tightly. 

Old-fashioned soap: clean a simple scrape or cut with actual soap and water—also good for removing dirt (who knew.) Lather area with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing “Call Me Maybe” and then hold the wounded area so that the water runs downhill—away from the wound! 

Hydrogen peroxide: a good surface wound cleanser and antiseptic that’s especially useful for stopping bleeding. Plus, you’ll know it’s working when you see fizzy white bubbles. It will sting a little bit, but that’s simply the coolness and the chemical reactions that occur with the blood. 

Isopropyl alcohol: to clean a cut or scrape. Useless unless you actually clean the area for about 10 seconds (otherwise you’re just rearranging the order of the microorganisms on your skin.) In general, don’t pour alcohol on open wounds; use it to clean the surface of a wound. Oh, and by the way, isopropyl alcohol really stings. 

Isopropyl alcohol also is a great disinfectant, especially if you have a roommate who uses or borrows your stuff. Use it to swab cell phones, laptop keyboards, iPads, iPods, etc. 

Antibacterial cream/ointment: Some doctors recommend Bacitracin cream or ointment over the standard “triple antibiotic” ones because resistance to the triple-antibiotic topical medication has been reported. Either way, apply to minor open wounds such as scrapes, popped blisters and cuts. Keep them clean, dry and loosely covered (with a bandage) until they’ve healed over or scabbed. 

Use ointment (petroleum-based) when you want to create a barrier between the painful world and the painful abrasion. (Think asphalt abrasion.) Use cream when you want the medicine to penetrate. (Think cuts.) 

Anti-itch/sting: (Benadryl-like ointment, hydrocortisone cream 1%)—Good for bug bites. If you’re itchy from a bug bite, the first thing to do is put a cold compress on it to help stop the histamine reaction (the itchiness and swelling). Then, apply over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream at a strength of 1%; anything higher requires a prescription. And remember, do not take warm baths or showers with a body full of bug bites—only cool soaks. Warm water will make them swell and itch even more. 

Poison ivy skin guard (Ivy Block): various creams serve as a barrier between the plant and you at key gaps on your body, between pant leg and sock or shirt sleeve and wrist. 

Should you find yourself breaking out from poison ivy/oak, again, only take a cool soak; warm water will make you dance later—and not in a good way. And, grab that tube of hydrocortisone cream. It’s best at stopping that dreadful itch. If your poison ivy/oak is getting worse after a few days, see someone about it. You may need prescription-strength relief. 

Ice pack: Pu-lease learn how to use ice and heat! Ice is for the first 24-48 hours of any muscle injury that swells. Ice tells your body to quit sending in fluid to the injury (the reason it swells.) 

Put ice (frozen peas, drugstore ice-packs, ice in a baggy) on joints, lower neck (or you’ll get a frightful brain freeze at the base of your skull), low back, elbows and big muscle groups. Use for 8-10 minutes (or until you want to throw it against the wall) every hour for the first day or two. Try to keep the injured body part above the level of your heart—or at least away from the gravitational pull of the floor! 

MOIST heat: Use a moist heating pad (available at drugstores) for the muscle spasms that accompany helping your roommate move a couch up five flights of stairs after the two days of ice. Moist heat penetrates tight muscles. It is NOT for reduction of immediate swelling. 

Dry heat: (heating pad without moist lining) is good for belly aches, menstrual cramps, homesickness, winter and that’s about all. Keep the setting no higher than medium. Never lie on top of a heating pad. 

Tweezers: good for the obvious: splinters. But, you’ll need the really pointy ones, available at the drugstore. Please dip for 20 seconds in alcohol before and after kitchen surgery on yourself.

When you don’t feel so good:

PLEASE BUY ONE. When your mother or doctor asks you if you’re running fever, putting your own hand to your forehead is like asking your top lip how your bottom lip is feeling. Use a thermometer. The LED-displaying-beeping-variety is fine. So is the one you can put in your ear (tympanic) and even the nifty one that you place squarely on the middle of your forehead (temporal). 

Fever of or above 101 degrees F is not cool (forgive pun.) High fever in adults or low-grade fever (99.5-100 F) lasting for more than a few days is a red flag that something is wrong. Make an appointment with your health care provider. Fever with vomiting, diarrhea, total body aches, worst headache of your life, painful cough, stiff neck, rash, white-hot sore throat, swelling of a joint or major irritation of what you thought was a simple skin abrasion are all indications for medical assistance. Call your student health service or local health care provider. 

Acetaminophen: (Tylenol-like meds) Acetaminophen is great for occasional aches and for bringing down fever. Remember, acetaminophen is not an anti-inflammatory (NSAID). Warning: Because it breaks down in the liver, too much of it can break the liver. Never use acetaminophen to prevent a hangover. Even small amounts of alcohol can push your liver over the edge while taking acetaminophen. 

If you are self-treating for a cold or flu-like symptoms, check your other cold medications to see if they also have acetaminophen in them. Your total milligram per day should not exceed 2,000. 

And speaking of flu, get vaccinated. You will not have your parents to kick around for a week or 10 days while you’re sick. 

NSAIDS (Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Naproxen): This broad category of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are excellent pain relievers. Read on for the specifics of each one. All NSAIDS can potentially interact with aspirin, anticoagulants, alcohol, antidepressant medications or certain cardiac medications. Before taking any NSAID, make sure you are not taking these other medications listed above. 

Aspirin: (Excedrin, Bayer) Now that you are over 16 (you couldn’t take it before because of a possible complication called Reye Syndrome) aspirin is an option. If your stomach can hack it, aspirin is a good alternative for fever and aches. Some people notice ringing in their ears after taking aspirin. Also, like all drugs, only take the minimum necessary. 

Ibuprofen and Naproxen: (Advil, Motrin, Aleve) Ibuprofen was the miracle drug of the 80s (along with Cyndi Lauper and Eddie Murphy) and ushered in true, actual relief from menstrual cramping for an entire generation of women. (Aspirin also is what’s known as an anti-prostaglandin, so it’s effective against menstrual cramping.) 

In fact, if your periods are regular, start taking ibuprofen or naproxen the day before you begin your cycle to provide even better relief from menstrual cramps and before the pain begins. Ask your nurse practitioner or OB/GYN for specific dosages to curb menstrual cramping. 

Again, though, use the minimum amount to reduce inflammation from sports injury, body aches or fever. Ibuprofen can cause kidney damage or gastrointestinal damage if used at too high a dose or for too long a time. Go by the OTC (over-the-counter) instructions. Seriously. 

Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea: A general rule of thumb is that if something wants out of your body that badly, don’t bar the door. Let it out. Don’t take medications to stop it without expert advice. It’s your body’s way of protecting you from alcohol poisoning, food borne illness or bacterial toxins. 

Keep Pedialyte or half strength Gatorade (half water, half Gatorade) on hand in case of dehydration and to restore lost fluids. Pedialyte Freezer Pops or the drugstore brand equivalent might be a more economical choice, and they have a longer shelf life because they can be consumed without freezing. Once a bottle of Pedialyte is opened, it must be refrigerated and consumed within 48 hours. 

If however, you haven’t been able to keep even clear liquids down for more than 24 hours, get to your health care provider. Dehydration is no joke. Vital organs can decide to stop working.

Eyes, Ears, Nose, Mouth:

Artificial tears: (these are eye drops, not the name of a college band.) Hours of computer time can dry out your eyes. Keep these around for dry eyes and for rinsing the eye if makeup or foreign material get into the eye. 

Eye injury: particle in the eye—rinse, rinse and rinse with tepid water. If you still feel as though something is in your eye or you absolutely cannot open it without pain, patch the eye tightly with gauze and tape to ease the reflexive blinking, and make an appointment ASAP with an ophthalmologist. Usually the pain is caused from a corneal abrasion (scratch or injury to the clear eye-ball covering). Eye injuries require attention, but heal rapidly. 

Q-tips: wonderful invention for smearing ointment, cleaning grout, correcting mascara goofs, but not for cleaning your ears

About your ears: Your mother was right: anything smaller than your elbow has no business near your ear. Ear wax is your friend in most cases. And remember, a Q-tip is not a magnet! While they pull small amounts of wax out, they generally push more wax farther down the ear canal, thus leading to ear wax impaction and possible damage to the delicate structures in the ear. If you have a chronically stuffed ear or a “dead ear” or ear pain deep in the ear after a plane trip, seasonal cold or swimming marathon, see your doctor. If you swim and have pain when you pull down and back on your earlobe, you probably have swimmer’s ear (otitis externa.) Ask your pharmacist for a swimmer’s ear preparation. If it doesn’t go away in a few days, again, see your physician or nurse practitioner. 

Floss: The strangest life extender: floss. First, it may save a relationship (hidden bad breath culprit—a piece of meat stuck between two molars, putrefying in a moist, dark environment. Gross.) Second, plaque formed in your mouth is the same plaque forming in your arteries, even at your tender age. Bacterial growth in the mouth can go throughout your body. Floss after every meal, even at your job. There’s nothing worse than that fur that grows between your teeth, even if you’re brushing and bleaching every day. 

Salt water gargle: About the cheapest and best fix for sore throat or irritated gums—or that cheese burn you get on the roof of your mouth from pizza—is gargling with warm salt water. Simply place a few teaspoons of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle. It tastes terrible but it works.


Sunblock: Just do it. Don’t think about it, just buy it and use it every day, even in the winter. Even on cloudy days. Make sure your SPF (sun protection factor) is 30 or above. Reapply often, especially on your forearms, throat, face—and particularly for men, back of neck and ear cartilage. 

Aloe vera: plant-based cooling cream or gel just in case you didn’t reapply the sunblock. 

Lip balm: This isn’t just for women. Cracked, chapped or sunburned lips not only are unsightly and uncomfortable, they also provide easy entrance for bacteria. Find one that suits you that also contains SPF. 

Rash, possible fungus, contact dermatitis, hives, boils: See your doctor. Don’t try to self-treat if you develop something on your skin that is totally foreign to you. Your friend’s hydrocortisone cream may ignite your undiagnosed fungal infection. Or, your rash may be an indication of a different problem. 

OTC Lamisil, sometimes used to treat athlete’s foot, is an effective antifungal that can be applied to the infected skin area as a cream, gel or spray. 

Body lotion: Your basic drugstore brands of body lotions will keep skin from drying out. This is important because dry skin provides microscopic entrances for bacteria—sometimes the kind of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics—so you might as well protect yourself and keep your skin soft.

General Health

Diet, exercise and sleep: The three cornerstones of a healthy life are easier said than done, especially when pulling all-nighters. Think you’ll replace that lost sleep with a nap the next day? Why not grab a burger and fries after you nap? You’ll make a promise to yourself to eat super healthy tomorrow and work off those extra calories and fat when you hit the gym. Oh wait, finals are coming up! Or, you have a PowerPoint work presentation due in two days! 

A regular routine is extremely important to maintain optimal health. You can begin your path to a healthier lifestyle by drinking lots of water and eating nutritious foods (lots of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and pastas, lean protein). Get enough sleep. Generally, seven hours of regular, uninterrupted sleep is the optimal. It keeps blood pressure and weight under control. Exercise three times a week for 30 minutes or more. Good luck! 

Multivitamin: You might actually get most of your nutrients through decent food choices... see above. When you can’t eat right, cover your bases with the basics. 

Sexual health: Do not self-diagnose or self-treat anything on, near or around the uro-genital area that stings, burns, itches, smells, aches, bleeds, oozes, erupts or hurts. This always calls for a professional. There is nothing you can tell a urologist or a gynecologist that will shock them. Just make an appointment. 

Birth control and barrier methods: Talk with your health care provider about the best options for you. Make sure that you give a detailed medical history if you are considering hormone-based birth control. Inquire also about methods to reduce exposure to STDs. Both herpes Simplex I and II, and HPV (human papillomavirus), along with several other STDs can be transmitted during vaginal, anal or oral sex. 

Bacterial meningitis vaccine: Most entering students (under age 30) at Texas colleges and universities now are required to have the bacterial meningitis vaccine. Talk to your health care provider about getting this shot. State law requires the vaccine for students living on and off campus and for them to show proof before classes begin. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis can be severe, possibly leading to brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities. 

Health insurance: No one likes to think about the “what-ifs.” But, without health insurance, you—or your parents—could be looking at $1,000 to $10,000 a day for hospital care if you have a wreck, an illness or injury. Those are the cold facts and the price of having the finest medical care in the world. If you are over age 26 (the cut-off age that your parents can carry you on theirs) you will need to find health insurance. If your employer does not provide it or you are unemployed and not in school, there are options. 

Yes, insurance is expensive. Insurance companies are tedious, often unfriendly and often uncooperative. But, a single slip on a sidewalk can wipe out your savings, destroy your credit or bankrupt your parents. Look into it now.

Health insurance options in Texas:

  • COBRA: (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act): If you previously belonged to an employer-sponsored health plan, and have been separated from the job for fewer than 60 days, you may be able to keep your health coverage. Check with your former human resources office for details.
  • Locate other group coverage: try to find group health insurance plans offered by trade unions, religious institutions, professional associations and fraternal organizations.
  • Texas Health Insurance Pool: If you are unable to obtain coverage through any other source, you can apply to join the Texas Health Insurance Pool:

When to call for help

Being on your own means becoming a parent to yourself. What would your mom or dad do for you? They would call the doctor or nurse practitioner if you had:

  • fever lasting more than a few days
  • an inability to hold food or fluids down or in for more than 24 hours
  • experiencing the worst pain of your life—anywhere in your body
  • extreme fatigue or lightheadedness
  • depression lasting more than two weeks or thoughts of suicide
  • blood that appears from body cavities not previously known for sporting such leakage
  • acute injury or acute onset of illness
  • any physical condition that sounds the alarm bell
  • OR, (novel concept) when you feel perfectly fine and simply are due for an overall physical

Last but not least

After you have fully recovered, call your parents to thank them for any help they rendered. If you managed without calling them in the first place, call to thank them for raising a mature, responsible adult. (Then apologize for not calling when you were sick and promise not to do that ever, ever again.)

 Reviewed by Tom Mackey, PhD, RN, FNP-BC

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This site is intended to provide general information only and is not intended to substitute for or be used as medical advice regarding any individual or treatment for any specific disease or condition. If you have questions regarding your or anyone else’s health, medical care, or the diagnosis or treatment of a specific disease or condition, please consult with your personal health care provider.