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HEALTH

Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy

It’s that time of year again when many of us will be coughing and blowing our noses. If you're feeling under the weather, here are the Italian words you'll need and some tips on what to do.

What should you say and do if you get sick in Italy?
What should you say and do if you get sick in Italy? Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As the temperatures fall many people will no doubt be falling victim to traditional winter illnesses, from a slight cold to a nasty dose of the flu.

If you’re feeling unwell, here’s the Italian vocabulary you’ll need to get help.

Il Covid – Covid is still here and cases are currently on the rise, so it’s worth stocking up on tamponi fai da te (home tests), or getting tested at a pharmacy if you want to be extra cautious before travelling or attending gatherings. Here’s how to go about getting a Covid test in Italy.

Un raffreddore – A common cold, likely to be accompanied by il naso che cola (a runny nose), or, if you want to use the more scientific term, la rinorrea – or you might have the opposite problem and have a naso chiuso (blocked nose). 

If you want un decongestionante (a decongestant), spray nasale (nasal spray), or pastiglie per la gola (lozenges; literally, throat pills), these are all available over the counter at Italian pharmacies.

READ ALSO: Are there limits on bringing medicines into Italy?

Pharmaceuticals aren’t available at supermarkets in Italy unless they have a dedicated medicines counter manned by a pharmacist, so you’ll have to make the trip to the farmacia (pharmacy) or parafarmacia – a type of lower-grade pharmacy that is licensed to dispense only basic medications. The pharmacist will likely ask if you have qualche allergia (any allergies).

Always make sure to ask for la versione generica (the generic version) of whatever drug it is you want; Italian pharmacies will usually try to sell you the more expensive branded version as a matter of course, as it will have a higher mark up.

What medicines can you bring to Italy from abroad?

Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP

Una tosseYour cold may also be accompanied by la tosse (a cough). If you have one of these you may need lo sciroppo per la tosse (cough syrup) and for that you will also need to visit a pharmacy.

Italian pharmacists have extensive medical training, and they will often ask you for more detailed information about your ailment to try and decide exactly what kind of medication you should be given.

READ ALSO: Ten phrases to talk about cold and wet weather like a true Italian

You might be asked Che sintomi hai? (What symptoms do you have?), and if your cough is secca (dry), umida/ grassa (wet), or cronica/ persistente (chronic/ persistent).

La febbre – A fever. If you are running a temperature, this is the word you want. Again, your pharmacist can give you over-the-counter medication for this, and will advise you to consult a doctor if they consider it more severe.

If you’re running a fever or have a headache, you’re likely to be given Tachipirina – the most common brand name for paracetamol in Italy.

This can be bought without prescription from all pharmacies if you need a painkiller or to bring your fever down. It’s so ubiquitous that people generally refer to it simply as ‘Tachipirina’ rather than paracetamol. 

L’influenza – The flu. If you’re struck down with a more serious illness, it’s likely to be l’influenza, the symptoms for which may include la febbre, brividi (chills), dolori (aches and pains), and could lead to tonsilliti (tonsillitis), sinusiti (sinusitis), or laringite (laryngitis).

If these get particularly bad you may require a visit to a doctor (medico) – though as the pandemic is still with us, many Italian doctors’ offices (uffici del medico/centri medici) still ask patients to stay away or come in during special hours if they have cold or flu symptoms. 

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system

If you’re in Italy on holiday and have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), you should be able to access Italian medical services free of charge – just show your EHIC whenever you’re asked for your tessera sanitaria (Italian health card).

The British embassy in Italy keeps a list of English-speaking doctors in different Italian regions.

If you don’t have an EHIC, you will need to reclaim the cost of your doctor’s visit from your travel insurance (travel insurance with a minimum coverage of €30,000 for medical costs is required for anyone visiting the Schengen zone) – though you should check your provider’s terms to make sure the cost of your doctor’s visit will be covered.

In addition to its public health system, Italy also has specifically designed guardie mediche turistiche (tourist medical services) available during the summer. Payment must be made by the patient upfront, whether they have an EHIC or not, but can be reclaimed from a health insurance provider.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy?

If you need to see a doctor urgently, Doctors in Italy provides a 24/7 fee-paying service and can assist with hospital transfers should they be needed. While you may have to make a co-payment (called a ticket) to access certain emergency room services, admission to hospital for emergency care is free in Italy.

An Italian doctor can provide you with a ricetta (prescription) for any medicine you require that isn’t available over the counter.

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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy

Sooner or later, every foreign national living in Italy will need to see a doctor. Here's a guide to making your first appointment.

EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor's appointment in Italy

Making a doctor’s appointment is usually thought of as a fairly uncomplicated task but everything gets a little harder when you’re in a foreign country.

And in Italy, the process can turn out to be surprisngly tricky, especially if you’ve just relocated to the country and are not yet familiar with how the Italian healthcare system (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or SSN) works.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy? 

On top of that, Italian doctors and other healthcare staff are rarely fluent in English and only very few sections of the SSN’s website provide information in languages other than Italian. 

So to make things a little easier, here’s what you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Italy.  

Who can make an appointment to see the doctor?

Only people who hold a valid Italian health card (tessera sanitaria) or an equivalent, i.e. a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), can access public health services, including visits to a general practitioner or family doctor (medico di base).

For emergency treatment, the Italian health service provides care to anyone in need regardless of their nationality or immigration status and without asking for upfront payment.

In a medical emergency, call 118 for an ambulance or head to the emergency ward (pronto soccorso) of the nearest hospital.

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

A GP making a prescription

Only people that hold a valid Italian health card or a EU equivalent can access public GP’s services. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

How to register with a doctor

In order to make an appointment (visita) with a general practitioner (medico di base) within the SSN, you must first be registered with that particular doctor.

While in some countries you may call the local doctor’s office and book an appointment with any doctor on duty, that is not how things usually work in Italy and you’ll be under the care of one particular professional.

However, registering with an Italian doctor isn’t nearly as straightforward as it should be. 

Firstly, patients are expected to view the list of doctors operating within the area covered by their local health authority (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL). 

Though in some cases these lists can be found online, in others residents will have to directly ask their ASL to be sent a copy, or visit the ASL office in person to see it.

Then, taking the location and office hours of the listed professionals into account, patients are asked to pick the doctor that’s best suited to their needs and communicate their choice to the ASL.

READ ALSO: Tessera sanitaria: How do you apply for or renew your Italian health card?

While in some areas this can be done online, most ASLs ask that patients turn up in person at their Scelta e Revoca (Choosing and Cancelling) offices and show an ID card, a valid Italian health card or equivalent (EHIC or GHIC) and a certificate of residence

Registrations are generally processed immediately and the doctor’s contact info and booking details are emailed to the patient right after.

How to book an appointment

Once you’re registered with a family doctor or GP, you can go ahead and book your first appointment. 

A booking can generally be made via phone, email or, in some cases, online.

However, as previously mentioned, healthcare staff, including receptionists, are rarely fluent in English, so email or online bookings might be the better options if you’re not really proficient in Italian – if this option is available.

Doctor speaking on the phone

Patients can book an appointment with their GP via phone, email or, in some cases, a designated online booking platform. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

During the first appointment, patients are usually handed a form to fill out with general information about themselves and their overall health. 

Due to these formalities, the first appointment might last a little bit more than normal appointments, which are usually around 15 to 20 minutes.

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system  

It’s also worth noting that, though they provide patients with a set appointment time, Italian doctors’ clinics tend to run a little late, so be prepared for a wait once you arrive.

All consultations with an Italian GP, including the first appointment, are free of charge.

Referral to specialists

GPs can refer patients to a specialist for further diagnostic exams or medical procedures.

However, unlike in other European countries, people choosing to see a specialist through the SSN cannot select the doctor they will be referred to as they will be given the earliest available appointment.

The referral comes in the form of a red prescription (ricetta rossa) with letters P, D, B and U indicating the different levels of urgency associated with the consultation – P marks the lowest priority level, whereas D is for consultations that must take place within 72 hours from the time of prescription.

The ricetta rossa allows patients to book their appointments online, in person or over the phone by calling the relevant Regional Central Booking Office (Centro Unico di Prenotazione Regionale, CUP).

Nurse looking at X rays

Patients choosing to see a specialist through the public healthcare system cannot select the doctor they will be referred to. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Again, foreign nationals with a poor command of Italian may find that online bookings are the best available option given that most operators are not fluent in English.

Private doctors 

As in other European countries, Italian residents can choose to see private GPs or specialists.

Private healthcare is of course provided at a fee – typically anything from €40 to €160, depending on the type of service required – and, in most cases, fees must be paid upfront. 

Unlike public health authorities, private providers do not require patients to have a tessera sanitaria or a valid equivalent.  

Aside from the above distinctions however, booking an appointment in the private sector is no different than booking one within the SSN, with patients being allowed to book via phone, email or a designated online platform. 

If you’re looking for an English-speaking doctor, the US Embassy in Rome and the Consulates General in Milan, Florence and Naples provide lists of English-speaking professionals available for private consultation. These can be downloaded here.

The UK government provides a similar list

Essential vocabulary and useful sentences

  • SSN (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) – National health system
  • ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale) – Regional health unit
  • Medico di base – General practitioner 
  • Ricetta – Prescription
  • Visita – Appointment 
  • Specialista – Specialist doctor
  • Farmaco – Medicine
  • When booking by email or phone, a useful phrase is: Vorrei fissare una visita alle ore X di X (I would like to schedule an appointment for [day] at [time]).
  • Should you need to cancel the appointment, you could say: Purtroppo, devo cancellare la visita.
  • To ask to reschedule it, you could say: Sarebbe possibile spostare la visita?

To describe your illness, you can check out our terminology guide for the most common ailments.

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