Stand on any street corner in Madrid and I guarantee you’ll see at least two flashing green crosses. To all my fellow Americans: these aren’t marijuana dispensaries. They’re pharmacies. In Madrid, you’re hard-pressed to find a street corner without one. They’re kinda like a Spanish equivalent of Starbucks.
When I first arrived in Spain it took me awhile to get up to speed with the way the Spanish do over-the-counter drugs. I spent several confused afternoons circling the grocery store looking for Tylenol and cold medicine. I soon found out that in Spain, anything stronger than toothpaste is available only in a pharmacy.
Since we’re in the middle of cold and flu season, here are a few things Americans should know before visiting their local Spanish pharmacy.
Spanish pharmacies aren’t like U.S. drugstores
If you haven’t already, you must let go of any and all notions of condensing errands. Popping into a Spanish pharmacy isn’t like going to your local CVS where you can also grab toilet paper, a coke and a birthday card. Madrid may have pharmacies galore, but most are the simple mom and pop shops with a few hygiene and baby times lining the walls. However, some larger pharmacies do have a separate area filled with the most gorgeously packaged beauty items and toiletries. In this case, the pharmacy warrants another trip just for browsing.
Get ready for a chat with your pharmacist
Everything—and I mean everything— is kept behind a counter. In fact, up until 2010, even condoms had a pharmacist gatekeeper! I’m not gonna lie, this takes a while to get used to. If you have, ahem, an embarrassing problem, I don’t blame you if you choose to go to a different neighborhood. On the other hand, pharmacists take their jobs seriously and do more than just dole out medication. When I first arrived in Madrid I quickly learned that even generic names are different (for instance, acetaminophen is paracetamol). The pharmacist took time to explain all of my different painkiller options even though there was a line accumulating behind me. Spain’s prescription rules also are pretty lax compared to the U.S. (see below), so chatting with your pharmacist may even save you a visit to the doctor.
Filling a prescription is super easy
Actually, it isn’t even really a thing. Simply hand your prescription to the pharmacist and thirty seconds later you’ll have your medication. The process is so speedy because drugs are doled out by the manufacturers’ package, not by individual dosage. For example, if your doctor prescribes you a course of antibiotics and you need 14 pills, the pharmacist will sell you the full box even if it contains 20 or 30 pills. Make sure you keep the doctor’s written prescription as well because this box won’t have your dosage information like U.S. containers. If you don’t want half-used prescriptions cluttering up your medicine cabinet and making you look like a hypochondriac, just take them back to the pharmacy. They’re happy to dispose of them safely.
Also, your prescription will be cheap (if you even need one)
According to what I’ve seen in a few expat forums, Spain is one of the cheapest spots in the EU for medications. They also are known for super relaxed rules when it comes to prescriptions. Things like birth control pills, prednisone and codeine are less than 5€ per box and purchased without a prescription. In my opinion, drugs are cheap to the point that it’s even not worth submitting the claim to our insurance. Antibiotics for a recent ear infection set me back only 12€!
While it’s weird to describe my ailments while having an audience, I do really love my corner pharmacy. Do you have an experience in a local farmacia? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!