Must-Have: Tea Tree Oil
This anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, antiseptic triple threat can heal from your fingertips to your toenails, says Reid Blackwelder, MD, professor of family medicine at East Tennessee State University who sits on the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Use tea tree oil to treat poison ivy, minor cuts and burns (add a few drops to a dime-size dollop of aloe vera) and stinky shoes (mix with water in a spray bottle and regularly spritz offending areas). It's also surprisingly effective on nail fungi, which are infamously stubborn and usually require expensive prescription treatments. Dab it on directly or, if you have sensitive skin, dilute with water.
Caution: Essential oils are recommended only for topical use and can be toxic and cause severe side effects if ingested.
Must-Have: Eye Drops
Even those doctors who don't have allergies like to keep a small bottle of saline solution around to safely rinse irritating dirt, dust particles and pollen out of the eyes. Contact lens solution is fine for this, Blackwelder says, but stick with the smaller bottles—economy-size jugs are less likely to stay sterile over time. Prescription antihistamine eye drops like Optivar or Pataday can help eye symptoms from allergies but may also relieve nasal symptoms, because of our anatomy. Blackwelder says the drops will travel from the tear duct into the nose, treating not only your red, puffy eyes but also your clogged sinuses.
Caution: Don't put drops that are past their expiration date into your eyes.
Must Have: Moleskine
Doctors agree that sometimes you just need a BandAid to protect a wound, but when treating blisters or hot spots, BandAids can cause rubbing that will make the problem worse, says Cathleen London, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Instead, she recommends cutting a circular piece of adhesive moleskine that extends past the edges of the affected area. "You're building up the skin around the blister," she says. The moleskine will stay comfortably in place while the blister heals on its own.
Caution: You can usually leave it on until it falls off, but change the dressing if you experience itching or irritation.
Must-Have: Hydrogen Peroxide
Your doctor will be the first to tell you that you don't need hydrogen peroxide to clean a wound—in fact, it can destroy tissue and slow the healing process (instead, use soap and water to clean the area
). But there are other reasons to keep hydrogen peroxide on hand. When squirted into the ear canal with a bulb syringe or eye dropper once or twice a week, it can be very effective at loosening ear wax and keeping ears clean; and when diluted with water, it can be used to disinfect toothbrushes. London has also used hydrogen peroxide to treat non-human family members. To de-skunk her pet terrier, she uses a chemist's recipe of one quart hydrogen peroxide, one quarter cup baking soda and a teaspoon of dishwashing detergent.
When squirting hydrogen peroxide into your ears, be careful not to poke your eardrum with the syringe, and be prepared to hear the solution bubbling as it dissolves the wax.
Must Have: Aloe Vera Gel
Take a tip from the physicians in the ER, Blackwelder says, and use aloe vera gel to treat minor burns and sunburns. For soothing relief, you can dab it directly onto the affected area. For first- and second-degree burns, Blackwelder recommends also taking two to three ibuprofen three times per day.
Caution: Make sure the aloe you use is mostly clear, which signifies purity. Colored gel usually contains chemicals or alcohol.
Must-Have: Eucalyptus Oil
This natural oil not only smells better than menthol, but it may be more effective at relieving congestion, London says. When you start to feel stuffed up, fill a bowl with warm water and a few drops of eucalyptus oil, soak a washcloth in it and then put that over your face or bring it into the shower. To help sick family members find relief, London sometimes puts a small amount of diluted eucalyptus oil in a bedroom humidifier. Eucalyptus oil can also be used on the skin to treat arthritis, boils, sores and wounds, and as an all-natural insect repellent.
Caution: Eucalyptus oil can be toxic when ingested, so never drink it or put it near the face of children under the age of 2.
Don't Bother With: Antibiotic Ointment
Blackwelder says patients tell him that Neosporin is their go-to for everything from a hangnail to a shaving cut to a blister. But constantly exposing the skin to neomycin, one of the active ingredients in most antibiotic ointments, can lead to an allergic reaction over time. "People will then use the ointment and assume the resulting redness comes from the wound, when it's actually the neomycin affecting their skin." He says that plain old soap and water work just as well to clean and disinfect minor wounds.
Don't Bother With: Cotton Balls
London says that one of the only things these fluffy space-wasters are good for is removing eye makeup. For cleaning a wound, she prefers regular gauze, and to dress the area, she reaches for a nonstick version like Telfa (like cotton, gauze doesn't weather showers well, so remember to change the dressing every day).
Don't Bother With: Baby Powder
Talcum powder can be easily inhaled into the lungs and, worse, has been linked to cancer in some studies
(although the relationship between cancer and consumer products with talc still isn't clear). Family doctors don't recommend the regular use of talcum powder for adults or, especially, babies. Instead, stock up on Gold Bond powder. London says it has cornstarch to help absorb moisture as well as other anti-fungal ingredients (her teen boys can't live without it).
Next: What's in Dr. Oz's medicine cabinet?