If you are in Italy and you feel sick or need medication, head to the nearest farmacia, which will be close by, no doubt. It seems as if each block has one! I burned the corners of my mouth on some hot food, and they wouldn’t heal for weeks. Finally I went to the pharmacy in Piazza Farnese. The pharmacist told me I had an infection and prescribed some French medicated cream that cost about $10 US, and the infection vanished in a couple of days. Another time someone visiting us developed a severe backache and the pharmacist sold him Voltaren—over the counter! That’s a prescription drug in the US.
Pharmacies in Italy are not like drugstores in the US. Italian pharmacies are typically quite small, with most medications stored behind the counter. Italian pharmacies don’t sell food, drinks, toys, stationery, or electronics, and they don’t develop photos. They sell medicines and medical-related items, dental items, and skin care products, for the most part. Although most pharmacies have small display areas from which you can select your items, you must ask the pharmacist for medicine—even aspirin, cough syrup, or vitamins. Be prepared for the pharmacist to ask you questions so she or he can give you what you need or refer you to a doctor or a hospital.
Most Italian pharmacies have a green cross outside, although sometimes the cross is red (as is the case in Piazza Farnese) or gold. Most pharmacies have regular business hours, but if they are closed, signs outside will direct you to the nearest overnight pharmacy (farmacia di turno).
In a pinch some pharmacists may be able to sell you a small quantity of prescription drugs without a prescription if you know the name and the dosage. That’s a big help if your checked luggage doesn’t arrive with you and you’ve packed your prescriptions in your checked luggage (I never take that chance!).
In Italy students can earn a Master’s of Pharmacy degree in five years, which includes six months of professional training in a public pharmacy or hospital. At the end of that time, the student must pass a nationwide exam to practice as a pharmacist. Some pharmacists speak English, but the one who cured my mouth didn’t, so I simply showed her my mouth. If you can’t show the pharmacist the problem and you can’t speak to her or him in English or Italian, pantomime the problem—clutch your stomach or throat or rub your back or your forehead.
In addition to the convenience of visiting a pharmacy instead of a doctor, I have found medicine in Italy to be quite cheap—especially prescription drugs—although the fish oil that I purchased in Rome cost a fortune! I stocked up at Costco the next time I was in the US.
So here’s the question: Italian pharmacists have lots of training, they can prescribe medicine for relatively simple problems, and medicine is downright cheap compared to the US. Why can’t we do that in the US? (I know the answer, but I don’t like it!)