Pharmacies and medicines in Mexico have a very long history in this country. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1521 there was already a flourishing tradition of healing arts here including surgery, cures, herbs, minerals, baths and more. The Aztecs were far cleaner and more enlightened about health and medical practices than the Spaniards were.
Illustrations of many of these plants and practices appear in pre-Columbian documents (codices). In one, 272 plant varieties with curative powers are illustrated, in another, there are 142 healing herbs, and yet another provides 73 more. Perhaps even more remarkable is how many of these medicinal plants were effective and are still used in traditional indigenous medical practice today.
Given the longstanding tradition of the use of medicinal plants, it is not surprising that both medicines in the modern pharmacopeia and traditional medicine are widely available in Mexico today.
If you spend any time in Mexico, it will soon become clear that there are a lot of pharmacies here. In a city, you may find more than one on a block, perhaps even three or four. Even in the countryside, there will typically be several pharmacies in a small town. They may even have one that is open for 24 hours, although you may have to bang on the door at four in the morning to wake the pharmacist. Most medications, except for narcotics and antibiotics, are available without a prescription and you can call your order in and have a taxi driver pick up medications and deliver them to you if you are too ill to go yourself.
There are basically two kinds of farmacias, those that are allowed to dispense prescribed narcotics and those that are not. By far the overwhelming numbers are the latter group. These will vary from the tiniest storefront with a little counter and one pharmacist to Sanborns, the upscale pharmacy with departments selling everything from boxes of candy to clothing, magazines and the latest electronics.
Many pharmacies have medical consultarios next door, where for free or a few pesos you can have a typically fresh-out-of-medical-school doctor look at your throat, take your temperature, check your blood pressure and write you several prescriptions that you can have filled for a few more pesos at the pharmacy. In fact, there is an industry in Mexico—generic medications—sold by a chain of pharmacies known as Farmacia Similares. Their mascot, often found dancing to upbeat music in an oversized costume, is Doctor Simi, a familiar figure who is loved by children and adults alike.
In Mexico, it is common for people to consult a pharmacist when they are ill before they see a private physician, partly because pharmacists do dispense based on their own evaluation or because the patient wants a certain medicine, and partly because the pharmacist is free or the affiliated consultario is low cost. But reliance on medications is a long-standing tradition in Mexico, and results in a wide proliferation of the modern-day drug stores.
Of course, the dark side of this tradition is that the easy access to medications leads to self-diagnosis and self-prescribing with the erratic results you might expect. I recently visited a friend who was hospitalized by a physician after he had received treatments at pharmacy-affiliated consultarios for the following infections: eye, stomach, throat, diarrhea, jock itch and what seemed to be a serious inflammation of the leg. When he finally was seen by a private physician, more dead than alive, he was immediately hospitalized where he remained for five days for a life-threatening thrombosis, followed by nearly two months of bed rest.
So, the lesson is: for anything more serious than a sneeze or a bug bite, it is a good idea to see a physician who is not working for a pharmacy. But for a busy mother whose child has a cold and who lacks the time to wait all day to see a doctor in one of the public health systems, farmacia consultorios are a popular and affordable alternative.
While it is still reasonably easy to obtain antibiotics if needed, narcotic medicines prescribed for pain control are another matter. Even if a patient is not expected to live, one of the legacies of the “war on drugs” is that even doctors are reluctant to prescribe narcotic medications since such prescriptions are monitored and doctors are subject to the loss of their license if they run afoul of the authorities.
The solution is to establish a relationship with a doctor well before the need arises so that you are known. You will not be well received if you ask a doctor you do not know well for pain medication. No matter how reasonable your request, it will arouse the suspicion that you are seeking narcotics for all the wrong reasons.
Medicines manufactured in Mexico are widely regarded as high quality. The Mexican Health Ministry, a powerful government agency, oversees the manufacturing and sales of Mexican-produced drugs. Mexican manufactured pharmaceuticals are exported to other countries including the U.S. where they are often packaged and sold as brand-name drugs.
All Mexican manufactured drugs— both brand name and generic— are made to the same high standard and from the same high-quality materials. However, you should be aware that not all drugs sold in Mexico are manufactured here, and drugs made in China or other Asian countries do not fall under the same government supervision as those that are Mexican made.
If you spend any time in Mexico, it soon becomes obvious that there are all kinds of pirated (counterfeit) products: music CDs, movies, video games, clothing and many other products. Pirated medications have even started showing up in pharmacies. Pirated popular sellers, especially diabetes treatments, but even aspirin, have been found—primarily in small, independent pharmacies in border towns.
Some of these are drugs that are expensive for locals in their authentic form, so small outlaw labs with lax quality control may be packaging generic compounds in counterfeit, lookalike vials, bottles and boxes bearing logos and labels that are designed to deceive the customer.
Legitimate drug manufacturers are organizing to defeat the problem of drug piracy by adding more security features to the packaging, such as holograms, bar codes, and manufacturers’ data.
As a consumer, you can protect yourself by avoiding drugs being sold significantly below the normal market price in Mexico and purchasing from only a recognized national chain of pharmacies, perhaps one associated with the Asociacion Nacional de Distribuidores de Medinas, A.C.
Finding your medicine in Mexico may be a challenge. We were recently asked by a couple considering moving to Mexico whether a lifesaving U.S.-manufactured drug is available here. In fact, many people considering Mexico as a retirement option ask: “Can we get the medicine we currently take in Mexico? “
The answer is often yes, although discovering what that medicine is called here, and if it is the exact same brand, or chemically the same as the brand you take in the United States or Canada, will take some effort.
Here are some suggestions that may help.
- You can learn the chemical name of the medicine you are taking from your U.S. or Canada-based pharmacist. Ask him or her for the printed information sheet that has all the information about that drug, including the chemical name.
- Use Google translate to obtain the generic chemical name in Spanish for many popular medicines. For example, aspirin (aspirina) would be the name to search for, not the brand name.
- Contact the U.S. manufacturer of your pharmaceutical. Ask them if the specific drug they use is distributed in Mexico. If so, under what name and where?
- If they do not distribute in Mexico directly, do they have a Mexican affiliate? (Often a foreign company wishing to do business in Mexico must open a separate business in Mexico.) If so, contact the Mexican company and ask them if they have the medicine you are looking for. Ask using the generic chemical name, not the brand name. If they do have it, ask what the trade name (brand name) for the medicine is in Mexico and where it is distributed.
One of the best ways to make certain a U.S. drug and a Mexican drug are the same is to look at the chemical diagram on the printed information sheet. If they are the same, then it is the same chemical, although the dosage and form (capsule vs. pill for example) may be different. You can also find information about many domestic and foreign brands at the website RxList.
If you are not able to find your specific medication in Mexico, either as a U.S. brand or a chemical equivalent, you always have the option of bringing a few weeks’ supply with you when you are returning from a visit to your home country, along with the prescription in its original container to use temporarily. This does not apply to narcotics, psychotropic drugs or cold medications. Then plan on seeing a physician in Mexico who can prescribe a new medication for you. Of course, this is essentially starting over, with all that implies.
Keep in mind that Mexican physicians have been treating patients with pharmaceuticals that are produced here for longer than the U.S. has been a country. Many of the drugs sold in the U.S. are produced in Mexico. However, in some rare circumstances a specific essential drug you are taking cannot be procured in Mexico. If so, you will want to discover this before making plans to move here.