Medications Overseas: Potential Hazards
Avoiding Drug Problems
Many of the medications that Americans use are produced by German or Swiss companies. But that doesn’t mean there is a worldwide standard for the names of those medications. Sometimes even a drug that has the same name may have different ingredients and applications in the U.S. versus Europe.
The drug known as Vivelle in both the U.S. and Austria is not the same thing in those two countries. In the U.S., Vivelle is prescribed for estrogen deficiency or menopausal disorders (active ingredient: estradiol). Vivelle in Austria is an oral contraceptive and acne medicine (active ingredients: ethinylestradiol, norgestimate). The two different medicines with the same name not only have different purposes, but they can also have very different side effects.
An article in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 16, 2005) pointed out the dangers for American travelers overseas who get medical prescriptions filled in a foreign country. The Journal cited the true story of an American who got a prescription for his Dilacor hypertension medication filled in Serbia. The Serbian Dialcor, despite its identical name, is not the same drug at all. It is intended for congestive heart failure and has a different ingredient than the U.S. version. The man survived the mix-up, but his case illustrates the hazard of identical drug names with very different ingredients. Apparently, there is no international body responsible for helping people avoid the dangers of different drugs with the same brand name.
Different Names, Same Drug
A similar problem arises from the fact that a U.S. drug’s name may be completely different in Germany or elsewhere. Pfizer’s antidepressant medication, known as Zoloft (sertraline hydrochloride) in the U.S., is called Gladem in Austria and Germany. Pfizer’s Lipitor (atorvastatin calcium) is sold under the name Sortis in Germany. Eli Lilly’s Prozac (fluoxetine hydrochloride) is known as Fluctin in Germany, but is called Fluctine in Austria and Switzerland. In other countries Prozac is known variously by the following brand names: Adofen, Andep, Auroken, Deproxin, Fludac, Flufran, Flunil, Fluoxac, Fluoxeren, Fluoxil, Prizma, Proctin, Sanzur, Zactin, and more. Talk about confusing! And that is just one drug.
- Rx for Drugs in Deutschland - Advice from the German Way Expat Blog
Another, only slightly less serious concern is the fact that some drugs may not be available at all, under any name. A drug approved by the FDA in the U.S. may not be approved in Germany (or vice versa). I had this experience myself. After suffering a serious skin rash one summer in Berlin, I walked into a German Apotheke (pharmacy) to try to get something to alleviate the problem. I showed the German pharmacist the rash on my leg, and asked him if he had something that might help. He sold me a tube of ointment that worked so well, I later tried to find it in the U.S. When I had my doctor check on it (using the empty tube’s labeling), he told me that the German ointment contained aspirin, an ingredient that is sold over the counter in the U.S. but is forbidden in ointments by the FDA! (Aspercreme contains trolamine salicylate, but no aspirin!) The only way I can get that medication is to buy it in Germany. One can only wonder why it is okay to have aspirin in a German ointment, but not in an American salve.
Bringing Drugs vs Shipping Drugs
This points out the importance of knowing if a particular drug is available overseas or not. If not, you need to bring an adequate supply with you (with a written prescription from your physician, for customs). Be aware that German law prohibits the mailing or shipment of drugs, including prescription medicines, to private persons in Germany from the U.S. or other foreign countries. However, if you are carrying prescribed medicine with you while traveling to Germany, that is permitted. It is advisable to keep the drugs in the original prescription bottle or container with your name on it.
An alternative is to ask your local Apotheker(in) (pharmacist) to convert your U.S. prescription to the German equivalent. He or she may require a visit to a local physician who can prescribe the medicine you need. A bonus: You’ll now have a local doctor! Another bonus is that the German equivalent is often much cheaper than the same drug purchased in the U.S.
Anyone going to Germany or any of the other German-speaking countries also needs to know some of the important differences between medical practices there and in their home country. For instance, in Germany there is much more emphasis on “natural” medicine. Herbal medications are considered drugs and are rated for safety and efficacy. While it is easy to purchase a bottle of aspirin (a German invention) off the shelf in the U.S., even in a supermarket, in Germany you can only buy it in an Apotheke.
You can learn more about this topic in the Health and fitness chapter of The German Way. Also see the Web links below.
Web content ©1997-2013 Hyde Flippo
- The German Way Forum - Join our forum, where we share info and tips about life in German Europe.
- Expat Checklists - What expats need to know
- Expat Interviews - Learn from those who have already been there, done that.
Related Web Sites
Note: We are not responsible for the content of external websites we link to.
- MedicineNet.com - Medications A-Z list - Over 2500 common drugs listed
- MedicineNet.com - Health and medical information produced by doctors
- World Standard Drug Database - from SafeScript
- FDA - U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- FDA - CDER Human Drugs - The FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CEDER)
- The Complex Process of Naming Drugs - from the Annals of Internal Medicine (first-page preview)
- Lilly: Human Products Information - One source of international brand names for drugs; info files in PDF format