If you’re traveling overseas for the holidays, staying healthy can get tricky if you lose or forget your medication. In any given country, both laws and business practices can affect everything from what’s available at the pharmacy, to what is actually in the medication, to how you go about getting it.
And worse, finding out what you need to do to get your meds is no simple task, said pharmacist Ema Paulino, the CEO of the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), based in the Netherlands. She said that there isn’t one centralized list or database showing travelers what’s available or how to get medicines in various countries, and compiling one would be difficult.
“There is more to it than just comparing lists,” said Paulino, who is based in Portugal. “You cannot do a simple direct comparison of medicines that do or do not require a prescription without further contextualizing the conditions under which they are supplied.”
This is why travel sites tell you to take detailed prescriptions, take more medication than you need, and to split it up between bags. But let’s face it — bags get lost. Refrigerators fail. Flights get canceled. And sometimes you get sick while you’re on vacation.
So, if you decide to go a little farther than over the river and through the woods, here are some examples of what you might have to do, what you might have to know, or what you should Google if you need to get medication.
Maybe that trip to Buckingham Palace has left you with a splitting headache or an achy back. In the U.S., you might take acetaminophen, sold over the counter as Tylenol. In the U.K., and parts of Europe, this same drug is called paracetamol.
Ibuprofen here is likely ibuprofen there, but if you need something stronger, it might be hard to get. In an effort to battle opioid abuse, there is a national push in England for more mindful prescribing. You’ll definitely need to see a doctor, but you still might walk out with something less powerful.
You decided to head to the Alps with your old friends from college, but the snow isn’t enough to quell your hot flashes. There’s an estrogen hormone patch in the U.S. called Vivelle. But if you ask for that in Austria, you’ll get birth control pills instead. The main difference between the U.S. version of Vivelle and the Austrian version is that the Austrian birth control product has synthetic progesterone in it, on top of the synthetic estrogen.
But while many European countries require a prescription for Vivelle and other birth control pills, emergency contraception is widely available over the counter.
With emergency contraception, however, here’s one catch: In Portugal, you can only get it at something called a parapharmacy, a kind of general store with a special license to sell nonprescription medicine from behind the counter. But if you make it to France, you’re right back to the pharmacist, also known as a chemist. The French version of parapharmacies hardly sell any drugs at all.
In India, the increasing incidence of diabetes means that while your lifelong dream of visiting the Taj Mahal comes true, if your hotel refrigerator fails, or your pump gets gummed up, a high availability of insulin doesn’t mean it’s easy to get.
For one thing, pharmacists have less incentive to stock it as many private doctors offer it directly. When pharmacists do have it, you may end up shelling out way more than you would back home, where your insurance would cover at least part of the cost. In India, markups, taxes, and limited availability of cheaper brands will also drive up the price you pay.
Or maybe you have diabetes and you’re traveling in China. The good news is that various brands and formulations are available and you’ll have little trouble finding them. It’s also relatively inexpensive. Your one hitch might be if you need syringes: Hospitals are mainly where they are available.
If you decide to head to Bali, Thailand, or Vietnam for your holiday, and you take medication for epilepsy or depression, be mindful that these countries ban or tightly control certain medications that affect the brain. This includes narcotics, but also the aforementioned prescription meds. In some cases, you could even get in trouble for bringing drugs that affect the brain with you, much less seeking them out.
On top of figuring out whether you need a prescription, laws change rapidly for what store you can get medication at, or even if your meds are allowed in the country. In September, the Russian Ministry of Healthcare banned the sale of most drugs without prescriptions after years of allowing prescription-free sales of antidepressants, sedatives, and other medications.
This is why Paulino said that it’s best to start with a doctor. Hotels and resorts will often be able to help, and there are groups like the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, based in Toronto, which connects its members with English-speaking local doctors around the world.
One tip from Dr. Yohann White, an IAMAT doctor based in Jamaica, is this: that detailed prescription from the U.S. won’t fly in his country. Pharmacists can only fill prescription from doctors licensed by the Jamaican health ministry.
“You won’t find many American doctors registered here unless they have moved here to practice,” he said.
With barriers like that, travelers might be tempted to buy medicine outside the health care system. Don’t do it, said IAMAT executive director Tullia Marcolongo.
“Travelers should be aware of fake medications,” she said. “Substandard and falsified medicines are found in all countries.”