Top 10 Things Doctors Have in Their Medicine Cabinets

If the items in your medicine cabinet expired around when disco died, it needs a makeover. Here's what to stock.

Medically reviewed in March 2022

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Open your medicine cabinet and take a look. Do you have what you need for all the bruises, scrapes and sniffles you and your family are likely to experience throughout the year? You probably have some of the essentials, but there may be a few items missing. Here’s what you should always have in your medicine cabinet, according to Vinod Nambudiri, MD, an internal medicine specialist and dermatologist at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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Rotate your supplies

First things first. “If you’d look in my medicine cabinet, you’d find a bunch of things I think are important to have, and probably a bunch of random things that I used once and need to update,” says Dr. Nambudiri. “Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines expire so it’s really important to look at expiration dates and make sure everything is current.” He adds that most medications don’t become dangerous past their expiration date; they just don’t work as well.

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A thermometer

Probably the most overlooked medicine cabinet must-have is a thermometer, says Nambudiri. “You want to make sure you have a good working thermometer, and it should be in the place where you keep your medications,” he says. “It’s really important to determine if you have a fever.” 

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A painkiller

Speaking of fever, “Acetaminophen is great for reducing a fever,” says Nambudiri. “It’s probably the best medicine out there for that use.” You might want to have another OTC painkiller on hand such as aspirin or ibuprofen, “especially for inflammation or joint pain,” adds Nambudiri. He cautions not to give aspirin to anyone under age 19 because of the chance of developing Reye’s syndrome, which can cause liver or brain damage.

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Before you slap a bandage on that boo boo, even before you put the antiseptic ointment on it, there’s something you need to do first: clean the wound.  Saline solution is good for this. You can always make your own saline if you’d prefer not to purchase a bottle. Combine 8 ounces of distilled water with half a teaspoon of table salt, And, soap and water also works to clean wounds.

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An antiseptic

After cleaning the wound, it’s time for an antiseptic, such as Neosporin or bacitracin. An antimicrobial ointment can help prevent a wound from becoming infected with something nasty like a staph infection. “Smooth the antiseptic on a cut or a scrape, then bandage it,” says Nambudiri. Just be on the lookout for redness, pain and swelling—or even a dangerous body-wide reaction called anaphylaxis—that might signal an allergic reaction to any antibiotic ointments, he adds. 

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Once a wound is cleaned and disinfected, it’s time to cover it. “You can buy a box of assorted bandages. It’s good to have several different sizes,” says Nambudiri. “I don’t know that you’d need 100, but 25 or 50 is good.” You don’t always need to use a bandage; keeping a wound uncovered may keep it dry and help it heal. But if the wound will get dirty or irritated, cover it up. Nambudiri says to remember to change the bandage every day. Another type of bandage to have on hand is a compression bandage, says Nambudiri. “These can be useful for an acute joint injury to stabilize the area,” he says.


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A stomach settler

If you’re camped out in the bathroom or constantly running there, you might need something to help settle your stomach. “The active ingredient of Pepto-Bismol, bismuth, coats the stomach and calms down symptoms,” says Nambudiri. He adds that if you take Pepto-Bismol, it’s normal if your tongue or stool temporarily turns dark in color. Milk of magnesia can help with constipation, and calcium carbonite tablets (TUMS) work well for heartburn or indigestion. 

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An antihistamine

When you’re allergic to something, the body releases molecules called histamines, which can cause itching, sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes. Antihistamines block those molecules from getting to your cells. “Antihistamines are great for treating mild allergic reactions,” says Nambudiri. 

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Anti itch cream

Whether it’s from poison ivy or a bug bite, it’s hard to resist scratching an itch, but scratching can actually make the itch more itchy. “That’s why it’s always good to have some sort of topical anti-itch or steroid cream,” Nambudiri says. A topical 1 percent hydrocortisone cream will do the trick, and calamine lotion also works well.

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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, with an estimated one in five Americans getting a skin cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Sunscreen is an important tool in the fight against skin cancer. Get a sunscreen rated at least SPF 30, and make sure it protects against both UVA and UVB ultraviolet light. 

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Heat and ice

You might not think of ice as something to keep in your medicine cabinet, but some ice packs—those made from ammonium nitrate—stay room temperature until you squeeze them. Ice is good for soothing the pain and inflammation from things like pulled muscles and injured joints. Use ice initially, but once the inflammation has gone down, switch to heat. An electric heating pad can work for this, as can disposable heating packets that heat up when opened and exposed to air. 

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What you don’t need

Something you shouldn’t have in your medicine cabinet? Medications your doctor has told you to stop taking, perhaps because the dosage has changed or your condition has resolved and you no longer need it.  And with antibiotics, there shouldn’t be any “leftovers,” since you should finish the full course of medication for maximum effectiveness. “I don’t advise people to stock up on things like antibiotics or prescriptions,” says Nambudiri.“You want to stock up on essential over-the-counter items for treating minor ailments. For a serious medical condition, get checked out by a healthcare provider.”

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