Navigating The Korean Pharmacy

CONTRIBUTED BY DANIELLE BASS

My first three years in Korea, I could not for the life of me figure out how to get even basic medical needs filled without making an appointment with the doctor.

Coming from the U.S. system, understanding and taking full advantage of the Korean healthcare system took a lot of figuring out – and a lot of trial-and-error! One of the things that bothered me was the seeming lack of over-the-counter medications, especially for my children when they were babies. I remember frantically e-mailing my mom to send me packages with all kinds of baby essentials, from chest rub, to benadryl sticks, to vitamin drops… I had a stash, you know, just in case.

Pharm01

They all look basically the same from the outside, but inside it’s a treasure trove of goodness!

Little did I know that Korean pharmacies are a treasure trove of over-the-counter goodies. In fact, I’ve come to love some of their most basic items that I never expected to find. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to leave Korea without another stash, mostly involving the following:

1. “Easy Derm” medicated bandages – cut to fit your wound, stick it on, and leave it there for three days. They are waterproof and will medicate your owies.

2. Mosquito patches (called “summer patch”) – Like cute little stickers with transformers or Hello Kitty, these mosquito-away patches should be applied to children’s clothing, one on the front and one on the back.

3. Kids vitamins – hard vitamins, chewy vitamins, drinkable vitamins, etc. Good for getting kids to quiet down on road trips!

4. Kid chopsticks – just plain ol’ fun to play with, and good for learning a new skill!

5. Floss on a stick – never cut your fingers while flossing again!

Pharm02

I keep these fully stocked. You never know when you’ll need them.

Ever needed something and didn’t know where in the pharmacy to find it? Seriously, where do they keep the Advil and the cold medicine?

The main difference is that, while U.S. pharmacies tend to store their medications on open shelves that you can just pick up and grab a bottle of Nyquil from, Korean pharmacies don’t really do this. If you need to buy Bandaids, cotton swabs, or surgical tape, you can find those right in front of you. If you need medicine, however, you need to ask the pharmacist, and he should counsel you how to use it.

If you live off post and you want to take advantage of your local pharmacy, but you don’t know how you will communicate with the pharmacist and maybe you forgot to bring your dictionary too, here are some helpful Korean words to describe your symptoms, and how to say them:

cough – 기침 (gi-chim)

sore throat – 목이아파요. (mog-i a-pa-yo)

sneeze – 재채기 (je-chi-gi)

headache – 머리아파요 (muh-ri a-pa-yo)

fever – 열 (yuhl)

stomachache – 배가아파요 (bae-ga a-pa-yo)

diarrhea – 설사 (suhl-sa; similar pronunciation to “salsa”)

constipation – 변비 (byuhn-bi)

vomit – 토 (to; long /o/ sound)

rash – 발진 (bal-jin)

excema: 아토피 (ah-to-pi)

Maybe there’s a bunch of stuff sitting out and you have no idea what the heck it is! Here are some common household items and their Korean packaging:

glycerine

acetone

hydrogen peroxide

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From top left to bottom right: acetone, hydrogen peroxide, glycerine, kids’ benadryl cream (the one with the doggie), adults’ Benadryl cream, triple antibiotic ointment. Most of these will have some English on the packaging but you’ll need to inspect very closely because if it’s there, it tends to be be much smaller than the Korean labeling.

Pro tip: Did you know that glycerine is great for getting curry stains out of clothing? Or that acetone can miraculously clean stickers off of windows? Give it a try! At 1,000 won per bottle, you can’t go wrong!

Finally, here’s a list of some familiar brand names and health-related words that will be recognized and available in Korean pharmacies. Just say the brand name in English and you should get what you need:

Tylenol

Advil

Vaseline

Theraflu

Band-aid (or just “band”)

tissue

influenza

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(clockwise from top left) upset stomach medicine (like Immodium), antihistamine syrup, advil, daytime cold medicine, more daytime cold medicine, Korean local brand of cold medicine similar to Theraflu.

Still have questions? Many larger pharmacies have a pharmacist who speaks English. In any case, a decent pharmacist will try to help you as best as they can despite the language barrier. Happy shopping!

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