Packing drugs across borders for the middle-age set

A sign of the times - Over 50, will travel with meds.

The joy of travelling to Switzerland twice in one year is that I get a do-over on packing. During my first three-month term here, there was time to consider what was missing from my life, what I wish I had shoehorned into my suitcase.

So last June, as I winged back home to Canada, I made a mental list of all the things I would haul to Switzerland on my return this fall, among which was going to be more Crystal Lite iced tea packets than Swiss customs agents had ever seen before.

What did I bring back? Not a single sleeve of Crystal Lite.

Instead, my suitcase rattled with bottles of Tylenol, Advil, Aspirin, Nyquil, all manner of stomach remedies, prescriptions, extra eyeglasses, medical records and the like.

Living overseas for an extended time is something like shooting up to the moon. You know you will have to do without, and there won’t be much there that’s recognizable. Medications overseas typically have different names, even those produced by the same manufacturer. I have no clue what painkillers are called here in Switzerland, although when living in Spain we found a painkiller that does not grace North American shelves. It worked wonders, leading me to suspect it was some kind of over-counter codeine/heroin derivative.

It’s not just the different names and languages that produce hurdles; sometimes dosing levels differ, which has been known to cause some serious health crises.

All of this leads Dave to think about his young-adult trips to Europe in which he purchased no emergency health insurance, brought no medications and somehow still made it home in the same condition in which he left. Of course, back then he didn’t have any assets that a foreign hospital or Health Canada could seize.

Those were the days.

And so in the spirit of providing real information in this blog, something I don’t do very often, I advise travellers pack some pharmaceuticals, unless you want to chance finding yourself at a drugstore late at night where the pharmacist speaks French, Latvian and Parsee but no English, and offers you diarrhea remedies when you need something for a fever, that is if he really is a pharmacist. You could be talking to a teenage part-time cashier for all you know. And this is if you’re lucky enough to find a drugstore open late. I have yet to see a 24-hour pharmacy in Europe. I’m not saying they don’t exist; just that they are not readily evident.

Know before you go:

  • Let  your doctor know how long you will be away and ask for prescriptions to cover that period. Doctors will usually prescribe up to a year’s worth of medications. Note: Only do this if you need prescriptions. If you are over 50 and on no meds at all, good for you. Skip this step.
  • Prepare to pay. Those with extra prescription coverage through Blue Cross or other Canadian insurance carriers should check their policy. Many policies will only apply to a three-month supply, so if you need a year’s worth of that cholesterol med, the remainder of that year’s supply will come out of your pocket.
  • Transport Canada and Canadian air carriers exclude prescriptions from luggage restrictions, and so prescriptions do not need to fit inside that one-litre plastic bag of toiletries you have to wave in front of the airport security staff.
  • Keep your prescriptions in the original packaging, otherwise, you might have some explaining to do when border agents open your luggage.
  • Read your emergency health coverage policy (assuming you buy a policy)(if you don’t buy a policy, you just might be in for a surprise liquidation of your assets). Check for exclusions. For example, many insurers will not cover you if you don’t have health coverage in your home country. Many will not cover pre-existing conditions unless the condition has been stable for three months.
  • Check with your provincial health office for limitations and exclusions on coverage when you are absent from Canada. Find out how long you can be away from Canada before your government-funded health care lapses. Some emergency-care policies do not cover people whose government or home-country insurance is void.
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