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Health & Safety

Under the Weather in Paris


I’m not a hypochondriac, but having been raised in the US, I have a certain affinity for the large Walgreens-type drugstores. Whenever I go back to the US, I cruise the aisles the way visitors to Paris cruise the open-air markets. I marvel at entire rows dedicated just to runny noses, others just for upset stomachs. Then I fill up on the brands I know and love, the ones I never see in France: Nyquil, Dayquil, Tums with Calcium, Tylenol 12-hour Allergy & Sinus, and Extra Strength Midol, ahem. I also stock up on band aids and Neosporin, gigantic bottles of generic vitamins, and ‘Buy 5, Get 5 Free’ tubes of mint toothpaste. Despite the obvious rattling sound of pills in bottles coming from my suitcase, I haven’t been stopped and searched at French customs, yet.

And a good thing, too, because I’m not sure how I’d defend myself. After all, France has medicine, bandages, and even vitamins. Toothpaste may now often be found in traditional American flavors like spearmint, Maalox has crossed the borders, and supposedly Actifed is available. Why don’t I know this for sure? All of the resident expats reading this are probably already snickering. Getting used to the French medical system is one thing. The French ‘Pharmacies’ are a completely different matter.

Keeping The Neon Industry Alive

Next to the Eiffel Tower, you know you’re in Paris when you see the flashing neon green plus symbols on every street corner of the city. La Pharmacie. When you’re in fine health, those neon signs can be downright annoying, since they ruin the Old World feel of your travel photos. When you’re ill, they’re the beacons of health we seek out. Not only are there plenty of late-night pharmacies, almost every pharmacie will post a sign on their door with the address of the nearest 24-hour pharmacie. The regular pharmacy is a small shop filled with a few items of make-up, baby care, hair care, sun block and blister pads for your weary feet. There might be some soaps and frou frou bath items, but what the American visitor will notice right away is the lack of medicine.

Behind the Counter

In the beginning, I only went to the pharmacie if I had a prescription from the doctor. Everything else I got at the supermarché or from the States. Then one day I needed something for what I was sure was a sinus infection brewing in my head, and I had a trans-Atlantic flight that evening. You don’t need a prescription to get medicine, but you do have to ask for it from the pharmacist. No browsing the aisles reading all of the boxes and bottles and deciding yourself. Knowing the name of the medication you want is best, but I rarely know what the names of French medicines are, and I haven’t yet tried reading off the list of American names in hopes they’ll carry one. It would be a bad start. I go by friend’s recommendations, maybe even a convincing ad I saw on TV (why not?). Otherwise, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the pharmacist. You describe your problem, they give you what they think will work.

Charades 101

Think you can describe a headache in French? Stomach ache? What about cramps? Constipation? Athlete’s Foot (without hoisting the offending foot on the counter)? Is your vocab good enough to ask for condoms (yup, they’re behind the counter, too) or hemorrhoid cream? Make sure you have a good phrase book before you arrive, and photocopy the health section to take with you to the pharmacie. Even if you can pronounce the words, it may be less embarrassing to point out the words. Of course, if there are a lot of other clients in the shop, the pharmacist will most likely repeat it out loud anyway (French pharmacists seem to enjoy taunting the foreigners; more on that below). If you can, open the medicine and look to see if the directions (and description) are in English on the little paper inside. This may help avoid the problem of getting the wrong medicine. You’ll also want to see what the medicine looks like, just in case you need to ask what to do with it. I’ve had different kinds of medications come in regular pills, liquid in glass vials, little beads inside plastic tubes, and powders I’m supposed to stir into juice. I’ve never had suppositories, despite their popularity in France. If you get a pill that looks too big to swallow, better ask the pharmacist before you leave the shop.

Super Pharmacist

French pharmacists are much different from their American counterparts. They are actually medically trained and can do many wonderful things like identify poisonous mushrooms (handy if you’ve been out gathering wild ones in the forest) and tell you whether or not a cut will require stitches. Basically, if you can handle the vocab, try going to the pharmacist before going to the doctor or the emergency room for minor problems. The pharmacist is your friend. Sometimes, in that very French way, I have convinced a pharmacist to give me something I should’ve had a prescription for. It helps to have an accent, since they realize as a foreigner and that you may need a hand if your medicine runs out or gets lost and you’re on vacation. If at first you don’t succeed, there’s always another pharmacist down the street.

A Real Learning Experience

I think any country’s pharmacy says a lot about the people. France is not exception, although I admit I don’t want to know what exactly it is that French pharmacies are saying. You’ll understand when you get a chance to really take in all of the products in front of the counter. Amongst the little drug-store type items, you’ll find the secret behind the slim Parisian figure. Pills, creams, syrups and teas. The closest pharmacie to where I live is a jungle of weigh loss displays. Pills to suppress appetite, creams to dissolve cellulite, teas to raise the metabolism, and such. Para-pharmacies, usually larger and carrying more beauty and hygiene products than regular pharmacies, decorate their shop windows with large cut-outs of lithe female (always female) bodies and body parts (don’t be surprised if there’s not a thread of clothing in sight). Very effective marketing, indeed, but also a bit strange in a country where the healthy eating habits and good genes seem to ensure a pretty trim general population. You’ll also notice that everyone at the counter comes away with grocery-sized shopping bags of medicine. They haven’t quite caught onto the multi-symptom pills here, and so every time you catch a nasty cold you end up with a different medicine for each symptom, plus special medicines to counteract nasty side effects like upset stomach or drowsiness. Since most of this is covered by French social security insurance, no one seems to mind.

American & English Pharmacies in Paris

Sometimes when we’re sick, we don’t feel like exploring cultural differences. We just want our medicine and a quiet place to sleep. Fine. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel like speaking at a second-grade level. Here’s the addresses you need:

  • Anglo-American Pharmacy 6, rue de Castiglione 1st Arr. Tel: 01-42-60-72-96 (also at 37, ave. Marceau, 16th Arr., tel: 01-47-20-57-37)
  • British Pharmacy (as foreign to Americans as a French Pharmacie, but they speak English) 1, rue Auber 9th Arr. Tel: 01-47-42-49-40 (also at 62 ave des Champs-Elysees, tel: 01-43-59-22-52)
  • International Pharmacy of Paris 5, place Pigalle 9th Arr. Tel: 01-48-78-38-12

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.