There are no required inoculations for Greece, though it’s wise to ensure that you are up to date on tetanus and polio. The main health risks faced by visitors involve overexposure to the sun, overindulgence in food and drink, or bites and stings from insects and sea creatures.
British and other EU nationals are entitled to free medical care in Greece upon presentation of a European Health Insurance Card. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have no formal healthcare agreements with Greece (other than allowing for free emergency trauma treatment), so insurance is highly recommended.
Doctors and hospitals
For serious medical attention you’ll find English-speaking doctors (mainly private) in all the bigger towns and resorts: if your hotel can’t help, the tourist police or your consulate should be able to come up with some names if you have any difficulty. There are also hospitals in all the big cities. For an ambulance, phone166.
Pharmacies, drugs and contraception
For minor complaints it’s enough to go to the local pharmacy (farmakío). Greek pharmacists are highly trained and dispense a number of medicines which elsewhere could only be prescribed by a doctor. In the larger towns and resorts there’ll usually be one who speaks good English. Pharmacies are usually closed evenings and Saturday mornings, but all should have a schedule on their door showing the night and weekend duty pharmacists in town.
If you regularly use any form of prescription drug, you should bring along a copy of the prescription, together with the generic name of the drug; this will help you replace it, and avoids problems with customs officials. In this regard, you should be aware that codeine is banned in Greece. If you import any you might find yourself in serious trouble, so check labels carefully; it’s a major ingredient of Panadeine, Veganin, Solpadeine, Codis and Nurofen Plus, to name just a few.
Contraceptive pills are sold over the counter at larger pharmacies, though not necessarily the brands you may be used to; a good pharmacist should come up with a close match. Condoms are inexpensive and ubiquitous – just ask for profylaktiká (less formally, plastiká or kapótes) at any pharmacy, sundries store or corner períptero (kiosk). Sanitary towels and tampons are widely sold in supermarkets.
Common health problems
The main health problems experienced by visitors – including many blamed on the food – have to do with overexposure to the sun. To avoid these, cover up, wear a hat, and drink plenty of fluids to avoid any danger of sunstroke; remember that even hazy sun can burn. Tap water meets strict EU standards for safety, but high mineral content and less than perfect desalination on many islands can leave a brackish taste not suited to everyone. For that reason many people prefer to stick to bottled water. Hayfever sufferers should be prepared for a pollen season earlier than in northern Europe, peaking in April and May.
Hazards of the sea
To avoid hazards by the sea, goggles or a dive mask for swimming and footwear for walking over wet or rough rocks are useful. You may have the bad luck to meet an armada of jellyfish (tsoúkhtres), especially in late summer; they come in various colours and sizes ranging from purple “pizzas” to invisible, minute creatures. Various over-the-counter remedies are sold in resort pharmacies to combat the sting, and baking soda or diluted ammonia also help to lessen the effects. Less vicious but far more common are spiny sea urchins, which infest rocky shorelines year-round. If you’re unlucky enough to step on or graze against one, an effective way to remove the spines is with a needle (you can crudely sterilize it with heat from a cigarette lighter) and olive oil. If you don’t remove the spines, they’ll fester.
Bites and stings
Most of Greece’s insects and reptiles are pretty benign, but there are a few that can give a painful bite. Much the most common are mosquitoes: you can buy repellent devices and sprays at any minimarket. On beaches, sandflies can also give a nasty (and potentially infection-carrying) sting. Adders (ohiés) and scorpions (scorpií) are found throughout Greece. Both creatures are shy, but take care when climbing over drystone walls where snakes like to sun themselves, and – particularly when camping – don’t put hands or feet in places, like shoes, where you haven’t looked first.
Finally, in addition to munching its way through a fair amount of Greece’s surviving pine forests, the pine processionary caterpillar – which takes its name from the long, nose-to-tail convoys – sports highly irritating hairs, with a venom worse than a scorpion’s. If you touch one, or even a tree-trunk they’ve been on recently, you’ll know all about it for a week, and the welts may require antihistamine to heal.
If you snap a wild-fig shoot while walking, avoid contact with the highly irritant sap. The immediate antidote to the active alkaloid is a mild acid – lemon juice or vinegar; left unneutralized, fig “milk” raises welts which take a month to heal.