You’ve just gotten back to your hotel and open the bag with the medicine that the pharmacist in the pharmacy around the corner has given you for your ongoing stomach ache. Eeek! What’s this? Suppositories? Ugh. Well, had you known, you could have asked for compresse, pills. But the fact is that many medications in Italy (and the same goes for other European countries, including France, Greece and Spain) often use suppositories as a medical delivery system.
From a physiological point of view, this makes sense (in fact, I got used to this decades ago), because in this way the medicine is absorbed into the body more quickly AND, as a bonus, it does not pass through the digestive system. But some people, particularly North Americans and UK residents, find that icky. Never mind. As I said, most medications here also come in pill form so you can always specify that you want “compresse”, tablets.
Other options are “bustine”, little one-dose envelopes of medication that you have to dissolve in water, – or for that matter solutions for intramuscular injections, another form of delivery that also allows medications to bypass the stomach and get into your system more quickly than a pill would. Taking medication in the form of injections is so frequent that it is not surprising how many ordinary Italians know how to do this. When my back goes out, the jeweller downstairs, Claudio, comes up to give me a shot. But most pharmacists will be able to give you the phone number of someone who can come to your home (or hotel) and do the deed. Shots are particular effective, I have found, if you back goes out and you find yourself totally or partially blocked.
As we all know, anyone can get sick anywhere and at any time, even during a long-awaited, much-desired vacation. But if you are here in Italy, there is no need to despair and unless it’s something serious, you may not even have to go to a doctor. Generally, in Italy, you can get excellent advice from an Italian pharmacist (farmacista), the person behind the pharmacy counter in a white coat or smock often with an insignia on the lapel. According to Italian regulations, no one who is not a bonafide pharmacist, with a degree, should be wearing a white coat inside a pharmacy.
The Italian pharmacist is a very hands-on figure: Probably because he has a university degree, in small Italian towns he is a figure of great importance along with the mayor, the doctor, the lawyer….and the parish priest. He is used to dispensing advice and medications, so if you are able tell him what is wrong with you, your problems may be solved right here. He (or she) will take your blood pressure if you are feeling faint. And if it is a farmacia galenica (after Galens, the ancient Greek who used herbs and their extracts to cure illness), the pharmacist can also mix up creams or potions in his lab.
Privately owned, and often passed on from one generation to another, pharmacies here generally keep regular store hours although, increasingly, you will find some that remain open the entire day (mine, in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, is now open every day, including Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) Italian pharmacies easy to spot because since 2003, like pharmacies throughout the European Union, they have a lighted, sometimes flashing, green cross on the façade. (Italian parafarmacie, which can only carry over-the-counter medicines as well as vitamins and other health and beauty products, are supposed to be designated by a blue cross.) If closed, pharmacies are required by law to post a sign on the front door giving you the address of the closest pharmacy that is open or that has night hours. Sometimes in the latter, especially if it is after midnight, you will have to ring a bell and speak with the pharmacist through an intercom. And keep in mind that many Italian pharmacies also sell homeopathic medicines as many doctors prescribe them and some Italians prefer them to the mainline stuff.
Although in Italy many pharmaceuticals require a doctor’s prescription (una ricetta, pronounced ri-chetta) pharmacists tend to be more flexible with people who are clearly tourists. Still, if you take any kind of medication regularly, you ought to bring your prescription from home with you. It won’t have any validity here, but it will help the pharmacist to understand what kind of treatment you may need. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to know the name of the active ingredient in your medication. That would make things even easier.
Some travellers like to bring a supply of familiar OTC products with them, so they don’t have to struggle with translations but just in case you don’t do this, or don’t bring enough things with you, here are some hints.
Tylenol is paracetamol and is sold in Italy as Tachipirina or Efferalgan.
Motillium or Imodium for nausea have the same names here.
Ibuprofen or Advil is sold here as Moment or Nurofen.
Benegol lozenges are good for sore throat.
Antihistamines here include Reactine, Claritin, Xyzal, Zyrtec and Actifed.
Naprosyn is called Naproxene
Citrosodina is the closest thing to Alka Seltzer
Voltfast 50 mg is Voltaren in small dosages and is great for back pains and other aches.
Many frequently used American or UK pharmaceuticals are sold in Italy under other names. Some, of course, like Benedryl, don’t exist here at all but I can assure you that comparable medicines do exist for almost anything. Italians take lots of medications (until not so long ago they were mostly free, so that can explain their overuse). So all you have to do is explain what’s wrong and the pharmacist (farmacista) will suggest something. Or you can go on the internet and find out the name of the product you want.
By the way, you do not need to declare your medications when you enter the country. But if for some fluke your baggage were to be looked in (this almost NEVER happens to tourists from North America or the U.K.), it would be a good idea to have the prescription together with the medications you are carrying.
Here are a couple of other personal tips. Italian band-aids (cerotti) are far inferior to those sold in the U.S., so bring some with you. Aspirin (aspirina) is much more expensive here than in the U.S. and the U.K. and is sold in much smaller quantities. Melatonin (melatonina) and Echinacea are also much more expensive here. Benedryl does not exist and condoms are called preservativi.
The internet has made life much simpler for us and you can find the name in Italian for anything you need. Just one word of warning. Droga (drugs) in Italian, has nothing to do with medicines but refers to illegal drugs or opiates, in other words, to narcotics. So don’t go into a pharmacy and as for una droga. Always say, una medicina.