Sometimes the most reassuring sight in Italy is the bright green cross (croce verde) of the local pharmacy (farmacia). Italian pharmacies, calm even when crowded, function as mini-clinics, and many Italians consult a trusted pharmacist (farmacista di fiducia) before calling a doctor (medico).
Whether you’re suffering from a headache (mal di testa), an upset stomach (mal di stomaco), a sprain (storta) or any form of pain (dolore), il (or la) farmacista will listen to your problem (problema), evaluate your symptoms (sintomi) and suggest a remedy (rimedio), including some medications (le medicine) that require a prescription (ricetta medica or "medical recipe") in the United States.
If you develop an adverse drug reaction (allergia al farmaco), be sure to return and report it as soon as possible. If you prefer more natural remedies (rimedi naturali) for minor issues, you can go to an erboristeria. The erborista will mix herbs to help you relax, sleep, digest or feel less pain. You can also find homeopathic remedies and Chinese medicine (la medicina cinese).
Le farmacie sell anything related to health or hygiene, including bandages (bende), razors (rasoi), sanitary napkins (assorbenti), condoms (preservativi), thermometers (termometri), cough drops (pastiglie per la tosse), pain killers (analgesici or antidolorifici) and ointments (pomate or unguenti) for everything from wrinkles to weight loss. You can also buy contact lenses or get injections if needed.
By law at least one local pharmacy must be available after business hours. If you need medicine at night or on a Sunday or holiday, ask for le farmacie di turno or check the sign posted at the nearest pharmacy for a phone number to call.
While waiting in line at our local farmacia, I’ve learned the words for all sorts of problems: taglio (cut), ferita (wound, usually with blood), livido (bruise), strappo muscolare (pulled muscle), febbre alta (high fever), indigestione (indigestion) and ustione (burn). I’ve also met an Italian ipocondriaco (hypochondriac) or two.
Some medical problems, such as l’asma (asthma), l’artrite (arthritis) and diarrea (diarrhea), have similar names in English and Italian. Others may make their victims just as miserable but undeniably sound better in Italian: tosse ( cough), pressione alta (hypertension), capogiro (spinning head or dizziness), stitichezza (constipation).
I heard my favorite Italian euphemism for a bodily function at a farmacia from a little boy who wrinkled his nose and asked his mother: “Chi fa il profumino?” (Who is making the little perfume—that is, passing gas?) It reminded me that il riso fa buon sangue. Laughter makes good blood or, as we would say In English, good medicine.
Words and Expressions
Malessere -- indisposition
Armadietto dei medicinali -- medicine cabinet
Una compressa al giorno -- one tablet a day
“Prendere prima o dopo i pasti” -- to take before or after meals
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.