Pharmacies in the KSA
Written by Mr M. Imran Zia BSc MBBS MRCS FRCEM PgDip (Med Ed)
Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Whipps Cross Hospital, Barts Health (London, UK)
About the Author:
I am a practicing Emergency Medicine Consultant and have travelled accompanying pilgrims as a medical advisor and tour group doctor to the Hajj for over a decade. Over this time, I have gained valuable insight into the common medical themes that affect pilgrims and how they can be addressed in a practical manner, at times where local medical help may not easily available. These short articles are being written with a ‘prevention is better than cure’ mind set. My numbers of years experience based upon exposure, dealing with illness in a congested foreign healthcare structure has placed me in the unique position to be able to share my thoughts with you all.
Rather than giving a didactic lengthy narrative these articles will instead focus on the common medical themes leading up to, and then during the days of Hajj themselves. Hajj spans from the 8th to the 12/13th Days of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah.
This is now the sixth of a series of articles being written in the spirit of helping prospective Hajj Pilgrims avoiding commonly seen medical mishaps based upon my experiences accompanying pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.
In this new article I will give you a brief summary of medicines and pharmacies as the rules regarding the acquisition of medicines has recently changed.
Pharmacies in the KSA
Hopefully during your time at Hajj, you will be well and other than a minor cough, odd bump, graze and niggle you will not need the services of a pharmacist. However, should you need it, the holy sites of Makkah and Medina have plenty of these. The Arabic word for pharmacy is صيدلية (SAYDALIYYAH) but they are often labelled as PHARMACY so identification should not be an issue. You can also ask for Nahdi (A Famous Pharmacy brand like Boots in Saudi Arabia).
- Good Points
These are often well stocked and the pharmacist almost always speaks English. They stock an array of typical over the counter items similar to UK but will often have an array of aids such as walking sticks, folding stools and wheelchairs. The opening hours are virtually 24/7 during the days surrounding the Hajj season.
The prices of most items are not standard from pharmacy to pharmacy so do expect to see a degree of variation in costs
- Buying Medicines is Easy… NO IT IS NOT!
It is a misconception that most items can be bought as acquired from a pharmacy without prescription. This is not the case. Certain medications which are common within the UK are either not available, or if available, may only be obtained from a hospital. For this reason, if you are on regular medication, do take ample supplies with you from the UK with a covering noted from your GP/hospital detailing what they are.
Antibiotics CANNOT be bought over the counter.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is that antibiotics CANNOT be purchased without a prescription. The KSA is very strict on this and pharmacies breaking the rules are at risk of huge fines, being closed down and other sanctions.
From personal experience I have come across certain items which are NOT obtainable in the KSA. This list is by no means exhaustive but built up from personal experience
- Glyceryl trinitrate spray (GTN spray) – used in heart condition
- Prednisone Tablets – multiple uses
- Chlorpheniramine – antiallergy
- Flucloxacillin – an antibiotic
- Opiate base drugs which includes codeine and tramadol
- Loperamide (Imodium) – used following loose notions
Confusion over Names
Many medicines will go by two names. The branding name and by the name of the active drug. For example, Nurofen is the brand but the active drug is Ibuprofen. Same medicine, different names. Be sure what you are after. Is what you actually need? For this reason, always take with you a list of your regular medication noting the active drug and not just the trade name. A prescription list from you GP should alleviate this anxiety,
Upset Tummy Remedies are Plentiful
Travellers’ diarrhoea is common and often will settle with sensible measures. However, unlike the UK where antidiarrheal medicine such as Imodium is available this is not the case ss this is banned in the KSA pharmacies. You may be directed towards peppermint options, antispasmodics, antibiotics and so on. If unwell seek medical help. Do not be afraid to use the multiple small health clinics which have been set up. They are often very good and from these, as they are medical centres, a wider set of medicines if indicated can be obtained without charge if you are a proven travelling pilgrim.
Pharmacies store a range of medical monitoring devices such as heart rate monitors, blood pressure machines and blood sugar level monitoring devices. The biggest difference is that some devices are configured to give readings in units which are not the same as the UK.
Diabetic blood sugar mentoring devices are a good example.
The international standard way of measuring blood glucose levels is in mmol/L (millimoles per litre; or millimolar, abbreviated mM). In other countries mass concentration is measured in mg/dL (milligrams per decilitre). The difference between the two units is a factor of 18, so that 1 mmol/L of glucose is equivalent to 18 mg/dL. Make sure any devices purchased are configured so that you can understand the numbers. Better still take your own device. Do not Get Caught out
The challenge of discussing your ailments in an unfamiliar country, with a possible language barrier, without access to a General Practitioner can make a simple task seem very daunting. My advice is be clear with your symptoms, talk slowly and read the box of medicine/over the counter options carefully. If you’re not sure and feel unwell seek some medical advice early.
On a final note, pharmacies are well stocked, easily accessible, staffed with someone who tends to speaks English but should not be seen a quick source of easily accessible medicines. If you use it regularly, take it with you with a covering note from your GP.
Articles by Dr Imran Zia:
- PRE HAJJ HEALTH PREPARATION