Austrian Medicine, Part I

For the last few weeks, I’ve had this thing where I’m constantly clearing my throat. I had a sore throat and a cold in Italy in January, and it left in its wake this aggravating sensation of an irritation in my throat. I came back to Austria and went to the doctor. He said, “It’s probably a virus, give it a week.” In that week, I came down with a horrendous cold, which buried the throat clearing under a tidal wave of snot. That lasted two weeks, and when I resurfaced, the throat clearing was back with a vengeance. “Damn,” I said, and headed off to another doctor, one rumored to be an excellent diagnostician.

This doctor gave me a couple of prescriptions. One is for my stomach, because acid reflux can cause this. The other is for God-only-knows-what. Snot, presumably, because the other thing that causes this condition is the slow drip of mucus down the throat, sliming the vocal cords to the point where one has to “clean” them. Thus the constant, noisy, and embarrassing throat-clearing. By the way, I use the word “slime” advisedly, because the German word for mucus is Schleim.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, I went to get the prescription, and an amusing and informative ritual ensued. By way of comparison, let’s look at an American prescription bottle (discretely turned to protect the innocent, i.e., me):


Notice just how much text is involved, and how many instructions (this is not including the page of printed instructions that came with the bottle). All kinds of info about when and where it was dispensed, how to take it, how not to take it, how much alcohol not to ever, ever drink with it, why not to operate heavy machinery while under its influence, how pregnant not to be while taking it, etc., etc.


Now, let’s take a look at what I got from the Apotheke in Vienna:


When you pick up your pills, a nice lady in a white coat takes out a felt-tipped pen, just like the one your grandma used to use to write the birthday card she sent with your yearly $10. She then writes, by hand, the complete instructions for taking the medicine. 1-1-1 means one pill morning, noon and night, and the rest of the text says, “for three days, then as needed.” My name is nowhere on the package, nor are there dire warnings about possible risks to myself, my automobile, and my unborn child. If I have a medicine cabinet in a multi-person household—and I do—then I’d better remember which meds are mine, because the package won’t tell me. And if I have questions about what this stuff is (and I’m not totally sure what it is), I’m out of luck, because nowhere does it say from which pharmacy I actually got it.

In addition to being charming and funny, I think this says a great deal about cultural differences in the concept of liability.

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4 Responses to Austrian Medicine, Part I

  1. Heather says:

    I was just deathly ill in Europe, and though my American meds I had presciently packed got me through the worst of it, the final symptom was an occasional coughing fit. Now, I’ve always heard about all these awesome meds you can get from a French pharmacie, and how much stronger they are than any over the counter meds in the US. I never get those. This time, like every other time, the pharmacienne tried to sell me three different meds to take care of my cough: a syrup to take 3x a day (yes, she wrote this on the outside of the package), lozenges for sudden attacks, and then “essential oils” in order to “kill the virus.” This of course prompted a conversation where I told her that I didn’t believe that essential oils would kill a virus, and she assured me that it was substantiated in all the medical literature. So, I only bought the lozenges (up to 6 a day, written in pen on the outside), and when I opened them up, they were basically small sugar dusted candies. I never get the good stuff from these stupid French pharmacies, and they always try to sell me snake oil!

    • Lisa says:

      So sorry to hear you were sick! I am familiar with the “dusty candies as medicine” thing. I was super-sick in February, and My Better Half, being European and all, was laughing at me because we kept seeing television commercials for homeopathic cough drops — not even made of whatever is in Hals Mentholyptus, here they’re out of sage and honey. We were laughing that I’m accustomed to the US, where they give you antibiotics for everything, and had the bad fortune to get sick here, where you get nothing but stupid herbs. I love Europe, but I think the homeopathic stuff is way over the top, and I think these rumors about good drugs from the Apotheke date back to the good, old, pre-homeopathy-craze days. To whit: In Florence in January I was sick as a dog, and went to the pharmacy, where all they offered me were those same homeopathic remedies you describe — in this case, not essential oils (HA!), but pills of herbal extracts. Capsules! I expressed skepticism, the guy swore the stuff works, and the next day I was 21 euros poorer (homeopathy is costly) and not a bit healthier. Bah.

  2. chris says:

    There should be a folded sheet of instructions and warnings inside the box.

    • Lisa says:

      @Chris — Yes, of course, there is. But one gets that in the US as well, where the pharmacist gives you a long printout with info about the medication as well as the various instructions that are all over the bottle. Leaving aside the fact that no one ever reads that piece of paper, and that it very quickly gets separated from the actual drugs, dosages are individual, and that paper does not — indeed, cannot — adequately explain them. Which is why one gets more specific instructions from the pharmacist. I just think the Austrian method of delivering those instructions is amusingly unlike the American one.

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