How to Navigate International Pharmacies

31 August 2023
How to Navigate International Pharmacies

As a reader of this blog, I’ll bet you’re pretty travel savvy. To that point, you already know that some medications that are allowed in the US are illegal in other countries and vice versa. And of course, taking medications across the border into another country comes with a risk varying between confiscation to jail time.

Also, as a SafeTravels reader, you probably know how to pack your own travel medical kit and avoid in-flight medical emergencies. If not, those links will serve as a reminder.

I’ll also assume you remember how to travel with medications, including:

  1. Always carrying drugs in their original labeled packages
  2. Be prepared to answer questions at the airport (have a doctor’s note, if needed)
  3. Use insulated containers (if needed)
  4. Keep enough in your carry-on for delays
  5. Have travel medical insurance that can replace lost, stolen, or confiscated medications

There are many reasons a traveler may need to obtain or replace a medication:

  • You could lose your medicine along the way
  • Your medication could be stolen
  • You may extend their trip and need additional medication

Whatever the reason you need to get medicine while abroad, I’ll address how to navigate the world of international pharmacies. Much like country-specific customs, there are country-specific rules to obtaining the medication you need from a local pharmacy.

Here’s your handbook for navigating international pharmacies.

1. Counterfeit Drugs are a Huge Problem

The US Department of State recently issued a warning about purchasing drugs in Mexico, indicating that counterfeit medication commonly contains dangerous – even deadly – ingredients.

A recent study by University of California Los Angeles researchers found that pharmacies in northern Mexico are selling counterfeit pills with fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine to tourists. Even common medications such as antibiotics, analgesics, and steroids have been reported to be counterfeited.

The truth, however, is that counterfeit medicines are a huge problem worldwide. In some places, up to 30 or 40 percent of medications may be counterfeit!

Tips to spot fake medicine:

  1. If you have your medicine’s original container, carefully compare the packaging
  2. Verify that the packaging is unopened, sealed, and completely intact
  3. Check that the medication’s expiration date hasn’t passed
  4. Be wary of drugs that have a different color, taste, or smell
  5. If in liquid form, give it a good shake – liquids that don’t quickly go back to suspension may be an indication of the presence of bacteria

Of course, purchasing medication from a reputable pharmacy is the most critical step to avoiding fake medicines.

2. Don’t play doctor

First, don’t play doctor abroad. If you fall ill while traveling, it’s best to consult with a medical professional―even if what you’re experiencing feels familiar. 

Depending on the destination, how far you traveled (jet lag is a trickster), and what is going on in the place you are visiting, something that feels like a sinus infection could be something else.

Treating what you’ve got with medicine that won’t wipe it out will only delay your recovery and could put you at additional risk.

3. How to find a reputable pharmacy abroad

All that said, sometimes you know what you need to feel better and you just need to get your hands on the right medicine to do the trick. 

In some countries, the first stop when you’re ill is the pharmacy and not your primary care provider. In fact, in some developing countries, you can get a prescription drug by visiting the local pharmacist.

In addition, some pharmacists around the world have the latitude to provide short-term or emergency refills for common medications without a prescription.

Know what’s considered a pharmacy where you’re traveling

As you might have suspected, what’s considered a reliable, reputable pharmacy depends on where you’re traveling. Here are some examples of the range of difference:

  • Due to counterfeiting and lack of quality control, it’s recommended to go to a hospital pharmacy in Africa and Asia.
  • In Central America, a supermarket or outpatient pharmacy is considered trustworthy, but they will require a prescription.

Travelers should not purchase medications (even those that appear legit) in open markets, from street vendors, or from businesses with names like chemist or druggist.

Call for help

When finding a reputable pharmacy is critical, you have some options:

  • Your country’s embassy or consulate can often provide assistance, including the names and addresses of local pharmacies.
  • Your travel insurance provider will be able to help you find a reputable pharmacy, even a doctor that speaks your language.
  • You can also look for pharmacies affiliated with a hospital or medical clinic—focus on those that are part of large, well-known chains.

As I mentioned before, some countries have supermarkets with on-site pharmacies like Tesco in England or Carrefour in Belgium. The staff there can provide some assistance or give you a number to call.

A 6-step checklist for traveling with medications

How to avoid an in-flight medical emergency

Pain-free flights: how to avoid aches and pains on long flights

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.