Staying healthy on the road: Italian hospitals, pharmacies, and travel health insurance
Yes, you can drink the water (except on trains, and if it's marked "acqua non potabile;" » more).
No, you probably won't catch anything more exotic than a head cold or a case of the tourist runs.
The pharmacies in Italy are astoundingly helpful (they can often hand out what it takes a prescription to get Stateside), and the hospitals are marvels of socialized medicine, where for minor complaints or ailments you can often get taken care of lickety-split with no time spent in the waiting room, no forms to fill out, and no insurance co-pay.
That's the upshot. Here are the details for keeping healthy whilst on your Italian vacation.
General health tips
I ain’t gonna lie to you. Travel—especially the high-stress, never-stop, whirlwind variety—puts a strain on your system, and exotic bugs just love a stained system. It’s so much easier to set up housekeeping in you that way.
But I’m mostly talking about colds or maybe the flu here. There really are no exotic diseases to worry about in Italy (or anywhere in Europe) that we don’t already have in the U.S., though occasionally there may be a different flu strain going around that you might pick up more easily than a local would.
That said, you probably won't get much sicker there than you would at home. Note, however, that some cities’ high pollution levels (Rome especially, but any big city, really) can leave your throat a little raw and chest wheezy after a day or two. This usually goes away—but contact-wearers beware; the grit of the pollution can get between the lenses and your eyeball and irritate you no end. I bet you look dashing in those glasses anyway, so bring ‘em just in case.
If a water source ever isn't safe, there will be a fairly obvious sign that says acqua non potabile and/or a pictogram of a glass with a slash or X across it.
Occasionally, the differing bacteria in Italian water fouls up American digestive systems (which are used to their own bacteria), and you'll end up with a mild case of la turista. It shouldn't be too bad, and you won't be sick for long.
At any rate, you'll be that much safer if you stick mainly to bottled water (fizzy mineral waters—think San Pellgrino or Ferrarelle—are one of Italy's everyday pleasures).
The change in diet—no to mention suddenly eating so many rich foods in such great quantifies on a daily basis—usually sidelines one person in five with diarrhea for a day or two—or at the very least, indigestion. This can last up to a week if you're particularly prone. It's just one of the many little joys of being a world traveler.
Pepto, that wonderful hot pink form of bismuth salicilicyte that goes the extra mile to cure la turista, is actually manufactured in Mexico—the very country that gives most U.S. traveler’s their first taste of Montezuma’s Revenge.
Here's something else funny, I happen to be writing this page from a boat on the Nile, where a few of my fellow travelers thus afflicted have renamed this condition "the Curse of the Pharaohs."
The Pepto-Bismol people were thrilled a few years ago when university researchers discovered that, in addition to calming sour stomachs, settling indigestion, and helping with that hangover, the pink stuff also cures diarrhea (not just treats the symptoms, but actually kills the bacteria).
Carry the tablet or chewable kind (mmm! Pink chalk discs!), because the liquid form presents spillage problems.
Take it easy for a day, eat bland foods such as toast, bananas, rice, and tea for two days, and ride it out.
Medications and prescriptions
Take enough of any prescription medication you’re on to last your trip plus one week (just in case). Keep all pills in their original vials—that and an innocent smile will help prove to customs officials that they're prescription drugs, not narcotics. Bring along extra written prescriptions in each drug's generic, chemical name, not a brand name. This type of prescription will help customs officials approve it, and foreign druggists fill it.
From the over-the-counter department, the only necessities are: aspirin (or whichever painkiller works best for you), Dramamine (trust me; Italian roads and bus drivers can test the most iron of stomachs), Pepto-Bismol tablets or chewables (for indigestion and diarrhea), and decongestant (hint: take it before your flight to cut down on ear-popping).
Don't bother carrying tons of the stuff. Everything they have here they have in Italy as well, easily obtainable from any corner farmacia (pharmacy).
I also throw into my mini first aid kit a couple of gelcap doses of whatever multi-symptom cold and flu meds I happen to have in the bathroom cabinet, just in case I come down with something and can’t find an open pharmacy right away.
(Yeah, I get paid to come up with zingers like that.)
- Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day (note: I'm talking about water here, not the wine)
- Try to get plenty of rest (use the riposo!)
- Eat your veggies
- Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently
Travel is an exhausting, often stressful business, and your immune system needs all the help it can get.