Translating Medication Names

Published by Chris Harvey May 5, 2005

Eliot C. Heher, MD

Blood pressure pills, antibiotics, birth control pills and most other prescription and over-the-counter medications are sold under different names in different countries. A popular cholesterol-lowering drug named Lipitor in the U.S., for example, goes by Xarator in Italy and Zarator in Spain. Ambien, a popular agent for jet lag, is known as Somit in Argentina and Stilnox in most of Europe. In addition, a medication that’s available in 5, 10 and 20 mg tablets in the US may only be available in 10 mg tablets elsewhere. An HTH physician in Spain summarized the situation:
“Commercial names [of drugs],even those manufactured by the same company, usually vary from country to country.” HTH Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeon, Madrid.
Expatriates who rely on medications for themselves or their family members should determine the commercial name of these medications, using an international drug information guide such as HTH’s Drug Translation Guide. In addition, expatriates should learn, or have available, the generic (also known as chemical) name of these medications, which is more likely to be familiar to physicians and pharmacists. “A popular cholesterol-lowering drug named Lipitor in the U.S. goes by Xarator in Italy and Zarator in Spain.”
Other important points regarding medications:

Carry an adequate supply of all medications (at least 6 months in case of delay finding an equivalent supply).
Pack at least half of your supply in a carry-on bag.

Some medications, such as oral contraceptive agents, are particularly difficult to duplicate in their exact formulation overseas. Expats should consider obtaining these medications at home during their entire stay. Pharmacy plan limitations may make it difficult to do so without significant out-of-pocket costs–the expatriate should discuss this problem with an Human Resources/Benefit manager at work.

Bring copies of all medication prescriptions, and glasses and contact lens prescriptions. Disposable contacts should probably be supplied from the home. An extra pair of glasses is a necessity.

Write down the ingredients of the over-the-counter medications you use, so a physician or reliable pharmacist can suggest something similar if the exact formulation sold in your home country isn’t available.

Avoid problems with curious customs agents by leaving all medications in their original bottles and by carrying a letter from the prescribing doctor explaining why the medications are necessary. This is critical for medications that are subject to abuse, such as narcotics.

If you receive allergy injections or injections of other medicines at home, be certain to get a detailed letter from the prescribing physician describing the exact components of the shots.