When You Need a Pharmacy in Italy
Have you ever been on a trip abroad and forgotten your OTC allergy medicine? Or felt sick while traveling and needed something quick to get over it? My two-week tour I was escorting was coming to an end in Rome when my throat started hurting. I knew I needed something to take care of the symptoms but the thought of going to an Italian pharmacy scared me – just a little. And I had enough confidence in my language ability to ask. I can imagine your anxiety if you had to walk in there not knowing any Italian.
More on my story later. I thought I would offer a few words on what to look for and ways to prepare for your Italian Pharmacy adventure.
Before you go.
It’s important to know the Farmacia (Italian pharmacy) is not like our local Walgreens or CVS. A strict Farmacia has mostly OTC medical items. You won’t see throat lozenges or vitamins on a center aisle. In fact, Pharmacia’s are so small some don’t even have a center aisle. You will instead need to ask the pharmacologist for what you need. In the U.S. a medical prescription requires a doctor’s visit. But in Italy, a pharmacist can write a prescription if he/she feels you have communicated your symptoms well enough to warrant one.
Look for the green flashing cross. These large green crosses are easy to see down any street and most of these stores are in or near all the main piazzas. If the light isn’t flashing that means it is not open. There is always a card posted in the window with a phone number and opening hours.
If you need something right away and can’t wait for this one to open, look on google maps for “Farmacia” in the area and it will show you all the opening and closing times of each one in your area. Italy tries to keep at least one pharmacy in each area open all the time. You might have to walk or drive to one, but if you need relief fast that’s your best bet.
Most pharmacies in the major city centers (close to tourist attractions) will have someone that speaks English. The surest bet for English-speaking pharmacists is at the train stations. I know Milan, Rome, and Florence train stations all have a Farmacia in the station.
Look for the person behind the counter in the white lab coat. That’s your pharmacist. There will usually be some sort of line for that person if it’s busy.
If you need to replace a non-prescription item like anti-itch cream, allergy pills, Tylenol that you ran out of, bring the bottle or show them a photo of it on your phone. They will offer you the Italian version of the item. If you run out of a prescription, bring the original bottle with the prescription on the label.
If you need a cure for something you just came down with, telling the pharmacist your symptoms will help them prescribe a solution.
Here are a few words in alphabetical order to get you started.
Cold sweat: sudori freddi
Headache: mal di testa
Jet lag: mal di fuso
Motion sickness: mal d’auto
Sore throat: mal di gola
Stomach ache: mal di pancia
I know it’s easy to memorize these words beforehand, but when you are not feeling well and the pressure of standing Infront of the white coat person mounts, all words go out the door. So have your handy Google Translate app or a translation book (do they still make books?) with you as a backup.
Another tip for you: Cut and paste the word list above into your notes on your phone. This way you have it with you when you need it.
The most important thing is for you to get some relief. The sooner you visit a Farmacia the sooner you will feel better.
Now back to my story. I went into a pharmacy in Rome’s city center. One near the Spanish Steps. I put my hands on my throat and said my best version of “Ho mal di gola, non febbre.” "I have a sore throat, no fever." After a few words I didn't understand from the pharmacist, she asked in English if I was coughing or sneezing. I said no and she gave me a pack of lozenges and told me to take 1 every four hours until the pain stopped. I was better in less than 24 hours. I loved those lozenges so much that I keep the box with me so if I need them again, I can just pop into any pharmacy and show the pharmacist the label hopefully for a replacement.
I hope these tips encourage you to seek out a pharmacist in Italy should you need one. Even if you don't, pop in a Farmacia and see for yourself how they are similar and different from an American pharmacy.