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Shopping Essentials: Pharmacies

Part of our Shopping Essentials series, this article deals with pharmacies, medications (over the counter and prescription) as well as vitamins and homeopathic treatments.

When you first arrive, you will probably notice that there is a green cross (or two) on every street. This cross is the European symbol for pharmacies (Apotheken). For some of you, the layout and rules are a little different than what you are used to, so this guide outlines some tips and tricks for finding what you need.

Coming from Canada, my vision of a pharmacy is one of those mega-drugstores where you can get everything from magazines to milk to shampoo, all while you wait to pick up your prescription (oh Shoppers Drug Mart how I miss you). In the pharmacy that I’m used to, most over the counter medications are available, in fact, in front of the counter. So every time you have a hangnail or a headache, there is absolutely no need to talk to a real human person.

Honestly, this is one of the small things I miss most about my previous life, but like everything else, I have adjusted. At first, I absolutely dreaded going to the pharmacy. I found it so invasive having to talk to a stranger about personal matters, in an unfamiliar language no less. I feel less anxious now that my German is a little better and I have come to realize that the pharmacists are an excellent source of knowledge. Instead of buying the same products I normally would have, I have been introduced to some different products, which have really made a difference. I have also come to know our neighborhood pharmacist and she helps me practice my German whenever I visit. So, there is something to be said for speaking with human beings after all.

Over the counter medications

Over the counter medications truly are given over the counter in Switzerland. This means that the everyday medications for allergies, pain or nausea are still available without a prescription, you just have to ask the pharmacist for them. It is best when requesting something to use the generic name, such as Ibuprofen instead of Advil or Paracetamol instead of Tylenol. Or better yet, bring in an old package of something you are looking for. The pharmacist will identify the active ingredients listed and try and find a similar match. If you are so inclined, you can also ask about your options for homeopathic (homöopathisch) medicines as many pharmacies also have a good selection of these products.

Prescription drugs

Hot tip. If you ask, some doctors may also prescribe over the counter medications like allergy tablets. This allows the medications to be covered by your insurance, which may benefit you, depending on the plan (namely the deductible amount) you have chosen.

Like many other systems in the world, you need to visit a doctor and get a prescription before you are able to pick up prescription medications at the pharmacy. Repeat prescriptions are kept on file at your chosen pharmacy, but you then must visit the same pharmacy to get refills. One thing that I have noticed, is that instead of listing the number of refills you have left on your prescription, the doctor indicates the date the prescription is valid until (the specific number of refills is not indicated). I find it helpful to make a note of that date, so I know when I will have to make a doctor’s appointment again, as it is not always listed in the package.

Extra Charges. You may notice some extra charges like Medikamenten-Checkor Bezugs-Check on your receipt. These are normal and it means the that the pharmacist is checking for any drug conflicts. This is a commonplace process for any prescription, it just happens that the Swiss itemize it. Most often the charges are covered by your insurance provider.

Health insurance is mandatory in Switzerland and the insurance company will pay for 90% of prescription medications, leaving the consumer to pay approximately 10% depending on your plan. Many major insurance providers issue a card which allows the pharmacy to bill them directly, while some other companies may ask you to pay up front and then submit the invoice for reimbursement.

It is also possible to have prescriptions filled online and delivered. Ask your pharmacy if they have such services or a simple online search will tell you what is available in your area.

Check first. It is possible to have a Swiss prescription filled in France or Germany, but it may not necessarily be covered by your insurance so be sure to check first. Prescriptions from foreign countries are technically not valid, however, depending on the pharmacy, there may be exceptions.

Expired medications. These can be taken directly back to the pharmacy (in packaging or not) for disposal.


Vitamin selection at Marktkauf in Weil am Rhein

Some vitamins are available in Swiss grocery stores, but not all varieties. This includes Vitamin C and multivitamins, but for things like Vitamin D and Zinc, you will need to speak to a pharmacist. There seems to be a much greater selection of vitamins that are available in grocery stores in France and Germany, and they are much cheaper (big surprise!). So, one more item you can add to your cross-border shopping list.

Vitamins are also available online from numerous companies. These sites also carry a decent selection of health food items and provide convenient delivery. Just make sure that they originate in Switzerland to avoid customs and duties. One of the more popular ones is iHerb.

Who would have known? Can’t find certain cooking/baking ingredients? Try the pharmacy! Things like cream of tartar (Weinstein), citric acid (Zitronensäure), rennet (Käselab) and molasses (Schwarz Melesse) can be found at lyour local Apoteke.

Flu shots

When flu season inevitably rolls around, you can book your flu shot at one of the local pharmacies. Depending on the year, flu shots can be in high demand, so it is best to book your appointment early. This may or may not be covered by your insurance, but usually costs about CHF 40. Unfortunately, pharmacy vaccinations are not available for pregnant women or children and these people must make an appointment with a doctor or paediatrician.

Off hours pharmacies

Pharmacy hours vary but are generally from 8AM to 6PM (with reduced hours on Saturdays) and are closed on Sundays. There are, however, a few that are open on Sundays and holidays, namely at SBB here and Universitätsspital here.

Plan Ahead. Many smaller pharmacies are closed from 12-2PM. Make sure you know before you try to run errands on your lunch hour!

Homeopathic pharmacies

If you are looking for a more homeopathic approach, there are a few specialty pharmacies in Basel that deal more with herbal remedies. These tend to have more of a ‘medical’ focus than health food stores, but also carry teas and food items.

Well, I hope this post finds you in good health and helps you find what you are looking for! If I missed anything or you have any comments, please leave a message in the comments below.

Bleib gesund! Stay healthy!


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