Getting sick on vacation is one of the last things any traveler wants to deal with, and yet it’s not uncommon. Between the bizarre air on board your flight to all the surfaces you’re touching in a train station to the lack of recuperative sleep you’re getting – it all contributes to running your immune system down, which makes it much easier to catch a cold or throw your digestive system off.
This isn’t going to be an article about what to do if you break your leg in Italy (except that I’ll say it’s best if you don’t do that!) – this is about taking care of the little ailments many travelers get that, were you at home, you wouldn’t bother seeing a doctor to diagnose or treat. This is the stuff that, at home, you’d deal with by going to your local grocery store or drugstore to pick up a few things anonymously.
Which, for the most part, is not how things are done in Italy.
The good news is that your first stop for most ailments of this nature is still going to be the pharmacy. The unexpected twist is that the pharmacist you deal with is going to seem a lot more like a doctor than someone simply working a cash register at Walgreens.
As mentioned, your first stop if you have a cold or an upset stomach or the like is going to be the pharmacy, or farmacia in Italian (pronounced far|mah|CHEE|ah). There aren’t chain pharmacies in Italy, but every one is instantly recognizable by the green plus-sign that is their universal symbol. Those green crosses are usually lit up, only sometimes also say “farmacia” on them (like this one), and often have useful information displayed like the temperature or the time. (My pal Kate also added in a comment that the places with the red crosses outside are called “parafarmacie” – and they only sell homeopathic stuff.)
Because they’re all independent, there will be lots of variables. The constant is that, most likely, you’ll need to wait in line and talk to the pharmacist to get whatever you need for treatment – even if it’s technically “over the counter.” Even things like ibuprofen aren’t on open shelves, although you won’t need a prescription to get them.
If you speak enough Italian to know precisely what you’re looking for, that’s fine – but Italian pharmacists are also likely to ask a bunch of questions before they just hand you a box of pills. They’re not being nosey, they’re trying to figure out which remedy best suits your particular problem. A stuffy nose might be allergies and it might be a head-cold, the treatments are different, and Italian pharmacists are kind of rock stars at determining precisely what you need.
In other words, be prepared to talk to the pharmacist as if he or she were your doctor, describing symptoms rather than simply asking for medicine. Not all pharmacists speak English, however, so some pantomiming may come in handy. And yes, this might get a little embarrassing if you’re suffering from, say, a urinary tract infection. In situations like that, you might feel more comfortable bringing along an Italian speaker or getting a translation of precisely what you’re dealing with so you don’t have to resort to charades.
It’s also important to note here that even if you do end up with something you recognize (albeit with a different brand name), the dosage in each pill or inhaler shot or whatever may be different than the equivalent you have in your medicine cabinet at home. Pay attention to dosing instructions, and if you don’t understand them – ask.
Below, to get you started, here are a few Italian equivalents of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you may know for common ailments – but don’t be afraid to chat with a pharmacist to see if they’d recommend something not listed.
Painkillers containing ibuprofen (like Advil) are Moment, Nurofen, and Brufen. Those with acetaminophen (like Tylenol, also known as paracetamol) are Tachipirina (pronounced tah|kee|pee|REE|nah) and Efferalgan. The ones containing naproxen (like Aleve) are Naprosyn, Momendol, and Naproxene. Aspirin is “aspirina” in Italian. There are others in each category, so just confirm the ingredient when you look at the box.
Most of these come in pills, which every phrase book will tell you is the word “pillole,” but in my experience at the farmacia the word they use is “compresse.” (The difference is that “pillole” are coated while “compresse” are not.) Efferalgan is one you dissolve in water to drink, like Alka-Seltzer.
There are also several topical pain relievers – such as creams and gels – which is a form of treating pain that’s more popular in Europe than in the United States. A pharmacist may recommend the topical treatment over an oral one, depending on what hurts.
The digestion-obsessed Italians have all kinds of remedies for stomach issues. One of the most popular antacids is on supermarket shelves – not in pharmacies – because it’s mainly sodium bicarbonate in little tablets. It’s called Brioschi (pronounced bree|OH|skee), and becomes a lemon-flavored fizzy drink when dissolved in water.
Some name remedies you’re likely familiar with at the pharmacy are Immodium and Maalox, and there’s also Citrosodina (pronounced chee|tro|so|DEE|nah), which contains sodium citrate (the same ingredient in Alka-Seltzer). The latter gets dissolved in water to drink.
This is when the pharmacist will probably ask whether you’ve got allergies or a cold.
The antihistamine selection includes Reactine and Zyrtec (both of which contain cetirizine hydrochloride as the main ingredient), and Telfast (which has fexofenadine, like Allegra).
For a decongestant, there’s Actifed (which has pseudoephedrine). Pharmacists are often eager to get you to try the homeopathic remedies, too, so you may find a box of Oscillococcinum being pushed in your direction. I don’t know if you’re much for homeopathic remedies, but I’m not (and there’s almost no evidence to indicate that Oscillococcinum does anything at all). I politely decline and ask for the Actifed, but you’re free to try whatever you like.
Pharmacists will inevitably ask whether your cough is wet or dry. In Great Britain (and much of its former empire) a wet cough is known as “catarrh,” but I have never heard that term used in the United States, at least not directed toward me at a pharmacy or at the doctor’s office… At any rate, for a wet (mucous-producing) cough, there are medicines with dextromethorphan (which is in Robitussin) called Bisolvon, Recotuss, and Bronchenolo.
Other options include FLUifort (with carbocisteine, a mucolytic) and Libexin Mucolitico (with both carbocisteine and prenoxidiazine hibenzate, a cough supressant). Most cough remedies are in syrup form.
For sore throats, look for lozenges called Benegol or an analgesic spray called Tantum Verde (contains benzydamine and also comes in lozenge form).
The first time I had to go into a pharmacy in Italy with an ailment, it was in the Cinque Terre. I had arrived after spending a week in France, where I’d been eaten alive by mosquitos every night. Luckily for me, I knew the Italian word for “mosquitos” – it’s long been a favorite, just for the way it sounds, not (obviously) for what it represents – so I was able to walk in and say, “The mosquitos are eating me!” The pharmacist chuckled in solidarity and asked whether I needed something for before or after. I left with both a mosquito repellant to prevent future attacks and a soothing cream to deal with the nasty bites I already had. Both worked like a charm.
While I don’t remember what I got back then, if you’ve got itchy bites now you can look for Locoidon, a hydrocortisone cream. The Autan brand has both insect repellants and “after-bite” care, and those are available in supermarkets. You can also sometimes find OFF insect repellant, which is a brand you probably know. Many markets also sell plug-in insect repellants, which can be useful.
When you’ve exhausted your options at the pharmacy and you really need a doctor, there are medical professionals in every big city that speak English. Staying in a hotel or in an apartment means you have someone to ask for a recommendation – either a concierge or an attentive apartment owner – so that’s always a good place to start.
Romeing lists several options for finding English-speaking doctors in Rome. The US Embassy has information about the Italian health system, as well as links to English-speaking doctors in cities where there’s an embassy or consular presence.
If you want to dig into medical terminology with more gusto than your phrase book might allow, then by all means peruse this long list of English-to-Italian medical words!