Sick Abroad: How to Get Medicine and Other Pharmacy Items in Europe
Updated: May 2
Disaster! You're jet lagged, hungry, tired, feet ache, pits smell and you think you're coming down with something you caught on the airplane to Europe. Mom told you to bring some DayQuil but you didn't listen, because it's Mom and you obviously know better than Mom, right?
And yet, Mom is always right. What's with that? This is a common scenario for me, even with my best packing judgements and foresight. Countless times I've overlooked the simplest of things - nose strips that I desperately need to subdue the effects of the lack of humidity I'm used to, or maybe a random ulcer/canker sore pops up due to the stress of travel - good luck finding those abroad. I know, gross, but travel is not pretty.
In desperation, I recently scoured all the airport convenience stores for some DayQuil, only to be greeted by a slim amount of options including primarily digestive medication and condoms. What gives?
Drug Stores Are Not Like In The United States
In the United States your local CVS, Walgreens or even the 7-11 carry all the drugs you need in a pinch. It's like candy sales, anything you want is pretty much at your finger tips, so why would it be different in Europe? Well it's time for a newsflash - it IS different, so you have to be prepared.
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You Have to Talk Directly to a Pharmacist to Get Any Kind of Medicine in Europe
In Europe you HAVE to see a pharmacist for anything typically over the counter. Lose your contact lenses? You have to see an optometrist. Need some pepto? Cold meds? The pharmacy will dole out paracetamol. Then you have to fiddle with the box, whose instructions are in a foreign language, and all shell out a good bit of extra cash in comparison to the states.
It Can Be Really Embarrassing
"Me duele la cabeza" I said in Spanish to an Italian pharmacist. Uhhh...dolor de...mi testa?? I tried to correct. I was clueless and Google Translate was definitely not a thing at the time. I needed Ibuprofen. Simple Ibuprofen, and I had to go explaining my pain to a pharmacist to get the goods.
Of course there's the time I asked for "tit cream" in Spain, or one of my favorites told to me recently was someone needing hemorrhoid cream and the pharmacists' response was..."for da butt?" in an Italian accent. How embarassing!
Know Your Prescriptions
My advice? Take a photo of all of your prescriptions or be able to access them in an online portal to show the pharmacist in the foreign country. Prescriptions for meds may require extra doctor's notes - I really don't know - but the over the counter basic stuff you should be able to get just by explaining (probably using Google Translate) what your ailments are.
Bring Your Medical Insurance Card
Imagine having to visit the Emergency Room abroad. What proof do you have that you can pay for your treatment? Always pack this handy card, or at least have a photo of it saved somewhere on your phone.
Understand Country Rules
Did you know that in Japan you are not allowed to bring in drugs that contain certain ingredients? For instance Adderall, amphetamines, certain ingredients in pain and depression meds, CBD oils, and even many over the counter cold meds are all prohibited. No joke, if you get caught with this stuff you could be arrested.
Whether you think you know better than Mom, or the government, check online in advance for obtaining certain medicine in Europe and fill in the gaps with what you may need from home. I can't count the number of times I needed simple over the counter stuff that was a hassle to get during my travels.
General rule of thumb: if you use it occasionally at home, check if you can bring it and then bring a small amount to get you through in a pinch.