Travel health

Basic health concerns in Italy, from drinking the water to visiting hospitals, carrying prescription meds and dealing with diarrhea, what to do about health insurance and what over-the-counter drugs to pack in your first aid kit

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.

Can I drink the water in Italy?

A bathroom sink on a European train: don't drink the waterAside from a few public fountains, trains are really the only places in Europe where the old "don't drink the water" rule applies. Take it from me, though: you will get thirsty, so plan ahead and bring a bottle of water on board with you (or, on most trains, there is a bar car). Yes, the water in Italy is almost always safe to drink, except on trains (bring bottled water on board, both to drink—trains can be dry—and on overnight runs for tooth brushing, etc). 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 food and upset tummies

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.

One of travel’s little ironies
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.

Useful travel health links

Medic Alert ( - Discuss any chronic condition with your doctor before leaving. If you have epilepsy, diabetes, or a heart condition and don't already have a Medic Alert Identification tag or bracelet—recognized by docs the world over and giving them instant, 24-hour access to your personal health records—do yourself a favor and get one. Membership costs $35 the first year, and $20 annually after that. They also offer a $100 travel insurance policy you might want to look into.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( - Our government's CDC will caution you about health threats and which vaccines to stick yourself with (for Europe, none you don't routinely get in childhood are required, and very few others are even remotely recommended).

World Health Organization ( - The United Nations' WHO does an excellent job of pouncing on any health threat to the public, no matter how minor, and smothering it with travel warnings and provisos. Overly-cautious alerts notwithstanding—reading just CDC reports, you'd think breathing the air in Iowa was the world's leading cause of death—this remains the single best repository of the official word on all health related issues around the world.

IAMAT ( - The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers is chock full of advice on travel health, and serves as a sort of free health insurance. You can become a member at no charge (they do appreciate donations), and you get a directory of doctors around the world who will be happy to treat you (the docs may charge you, they may not; still, the free list of English-speaking doctors is a boon).

Medical evacuation and assistance - There are several outfits providing these services. They are really intended more for travel to the developing world, not a place like Italy with a first-rate medical system, but who am I to judge your level of comfort with foreign medical establishments? Peruse them all:,,

International Society for Travel Medicine ( - This is actually an industry organization, one to which doctors who specialize in travel medicine can belong, but it also has some nifty recourses for the public, including a list of travel health clinics.

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