Local pharmacists – Croatia’s most accessible healthcare professionals

pharmacist and woman
Milena Gemić, a pharmacist, aromatherapist, and herbal expert from Rijeka

PUBLISHED: 11.4.2023.

Today I have an eye infection. A quick google tells me it needs attention. Do I need a specialist? Where do I find one? Will it cost me? (German health insurance seldom refunds my full Croatian medical costs.) And urrghhh! Going to sit in a doctor’s rooms again…

What luck! I interviewed Milena Gemić, a pharmacist, aromatherapist, and herbal expert from Ljekarna Brajda in Rijeka. She solves my eye problem and initiates me into how Croatians use their ljekarna (pharmacy). It is good news for you and I!

In this article, we cover:

The facts are these…

Croatia’s most accessible healthcare professional: your local pharmacist

Why is a ljekarna the place to go for natural treatments in Croatia?

#1 Medicinal herbs – right on your doorstep

Croatia is an elixir for the body and soul. The Adriatic air is filled with minerals and salts that are excellent for health. And almost everywhere fragrant, medicinal herbs grow wild.

“Even if you live in cities, you find herbs growing in cracks between stones or in parks,” says herbal expert Milena Gemić. “For us, this is normal. So, of course, our gardens are also full of herbs.

[Read: The culture of gardening in Croatia including history and the most common vegetables, herbs, and flowers]

Mine too. I have planted ružmarin (rosemary), kadulja (sage), lavanda (lavender), smilje (immortelle) – that curry-smelling plant, menta (mint), and ruta (rue).

Nature sent me other herbs: gospina trava (St John’s wort), komorač (fennel), paprena metvica (peppermint), maslačak (dandelion), kopriva (stinging nettle), pelin (wormwood), medvjeđi luk (wild garlic), divlji luk (wild onion) and even, drvoredac (wild rocket). It’s my backyard “pharmacy” and also, source of pest-repellents. Wormwood and lavender are great against moths.

This is why I wanted to write about how access to “alternative medicine” in Croatia is right on your doorstep. This plugs into a centuries-old tradition and is not just some kind of faddish trend. I get to learn much, much more from Milena.

Learn more about Croatian wild plants in the following guides:

#2 Croatia’s centuries-old herbal tradition

Knowledge of herbs in Croatia has been transferred over generations. “Anytime anyone in my family is sick, we have a homemade remedy – a herbal tea, an elixir, an essential oil, and of course, the famous rakija!” says Milena, with a big, infectious laugh.

[Read: The tale of rakija – Croatia’s legendary liqueur]

“My grandfather was the village travar (herbalist), who everyone in the close community went to for treatment. I picked herbs with him, which he dried in an attic. It was very interesting for a small child. He had lots of little bottles and plants in oil and alcohol. I think this is where my great love of healing  – and finding the right medicine – comes from.”

Her other great source of healing was the Adriatic, which is especially rich in salts and minerals. “On the islands, it’s the all-round cure,” says Milena, who grew up in Zagreb but holidayed on the coast. “Hurt your knee? The adults would say: ‘Go into the sea!’ My friend joked recently that the first time her heart was broken, she waited for her grandma to say: “Go into the sea!”

But do traditional treatments actually work? Yes, says Milena. “For hundreds of years, herbs have been used on a trial-and-error basis leading to recipes and books. And there are now scientific studies showing how the chemicals in some herbs work. For example, St John’s Wort is scientifically proven to fight depression.”

Which is why, if you want a natural treatment in Croatia, you go to your ljekarna. In Europe, where the herbal tradition is equally strong, this is also the case. “It is so normal for us that I was surprised to discover that your pharmacy is not the place you would go for advice on natural treatments in some of the countries I visited, for example, Australia. Not in the way we do here, anyway,” says Milena.

#3 What kind of herbal treatments do pharmacies offer?

Many Croatian pharmacies have their own lab where they prepare remedies, sometimes tailoring to individual needs. But they also stock teas, elixirs, extracts, essential oils, and cosmetics from local and international manufacturers. “We are strong on European products such as from France or Spain because of the long European herbal tradition,” says Milena.

But what about what we call “alternative medicine”, for example, Ayurvedic herbs? Maca? “We have it,” says Milena. Bacopa monnieri? That too! What about Neem? Also! That’s very exciting news. I don’t have to order these from Germany anymore!

Milena remarks that she does not like the term “alternative medicine”. She sees natural remedies as integral to medicine and not some faddish “alternative”. “Croatians are used to natural treatments, so you find these products in our pharmacies.”

Some ljekarna offer consultations – as does the pharmacy where Milena works. (I immediately ask her for a consultation about my eye!) But how much in demand are natural remedies?

“Often enough,” says Milena. “Even among younger Croatians. For example, it’s not unusual that if a 20-year-old goes to the beach a lot and gets a non-complicated urinary tract infection, they come to the pharmacy first, looking for herbal treatment. The pharmacist is trained to determine which patients can receive appropriate advice and therapy in the pharmacy, and which ones need to be referred to a doctor for further treatment.”

But they also have customers who want allopathic (science-based) remedies. “If we suggest sage for a sore throat, they say, ‘Are you crazy! Give me real medicine!’ Then we get those who only want natural remedies. Again, this is an extreme. Allopathic (science-based) medicine has brought us huge advances. The secret is taking the best from both worlds.”

How your Croatian ljekarna can save you a trip to the doctor

The Croatian pharmacist – Croatia’s most accessible healthcare professional

pharmacist, woman and kid
Milena Gemić and her customers

“In Croatia, when you have a minor ailment, your pharmacist is your first line of defence,” says Milena, who calls herself a “communal pharmacist”. “In fact, pharmacists are regarded as Croatia’s most accessible healthcare professionals.

“On average, Croatian citizens visit the pharmacy at least twice a month, while the average number of visits to family medicine doctor offices is every two months, and the number of specialist examinations is slightly more than once a year.”

“Pharmacists are taught how to treat minor ailments and how to distinguish minor illnesses from those that can develop into something more serious. If you need an over-the-counter medicine, your pharmacist can help you choose the best medicine for you based on your symptoms. They will tell you if you need to see a doctor or whether you can treat yourself with over-the-counter medicines and self-medication products.”

I put her to the test after the interview, going through a list of my own ailments. She quickly works out that I will need antibiotic cream for my eyes, for which I need a prescription. (Blast!)

For my other problems, she recommends Horsetail elixir for dry hair and nails and St John’s Wort to get my (post-winter) spirits up. I excitedly tell her I have both horsetail and St John’s Wort growing near me. She says to be careful of the horsetail because there are many varieties that look alike, and some are poisonous. And dear readers, this applies to you too. Only if you are 100% sure of your plants, should you harvest them yourself.

I am now Milena’s devoted fan and feel very secure in the knowledge that I need not worry if I again wake up with a weird and worrying ailment!

How to choose the right pharmacy for you

Many counties in Croatia own a pharmacy chain. However, there are also privately owned pharmacies, privately owned chains as well as pharmacies owned by medicine suppliers or manufacturers. “The county encourages further education, so some of us decided to add aromatherapy expertise,” says Milena. “When you are a community pharmacist in Croatia, you want to go that extra mile.

“However, pharmacies of all kinds offer a good balance of allopathic and “holistic” expertise. So, research which is the right one for you.”

Reasons why your ljekarna is your best (medical) friend

In the following sections, Milena Gemić explains why it makes sense to develop a long and trusting relationship with your local ljekarna.

#1 Expertise

Pharmacists in Croatia are highly educated to advise on self-medication, therapeutic options, dietary and lifestyle habits, and to assess in which situations self-medication is not an option and you need a doctor.

#2 Accessibility

Your pharmacist is open from 7 to 20, also on Saturdays. In some cities, they are open even longer, and may even work 24/7. Pharmacists are available without needing an appointment.

#3 Holistic treatment     

Our customers have been coming to us for decades. So over the years, we build a picture of their overall health issues. For example, they may have an issue today that we can connect back to something they had years ago. Or it may run in the family.

Health and sickness are based on complex factors such as family history, environment, lifestyle, and stress. And the longer you get to know your patients, the more you can isolate those factors. In this sense, we offer a holistic rather than symptomatic treatment.

#4 Community service

We develop close relationships within the community. We see this with people who move away. They will come back asking for a pharmacist they have been dealing with for decades.

#5 Wealth of knowledge

Through years of dealing with the same customers, we have built up a wealth of knowledge based on first-hand experience. For example, I always ask my patients to report back on a treatment because I am really invested in seeing that it works. And if it works, I can recommend the treatment to others.

But there is another good reason for expats to get to know your ljekarna: It is part of Croatian life where community is everything. Regular visits to a baker, butcher, fresh food market, or even post office will bring you more than what you came for: a place to have a good chat — and get insider tips, for example, on navigating Croatia’s medical jungle.

“You know, I never really thought about the fact that foreigners may not know how to find the medical care they need. Hmm! I must remember that!” says Milena.

Note: Obviously, readers must seek out a doctor for serious ailments.

[Read: Why you must have health insurance]

Common ailments and herbal remedies you can find in your local Croatian pharmacy

#1 Peppermint oil for the symptomatic relief of mild tension type headache

Peppermint oil is the common name for the essential oil obtained by steam distillation from the fresh aerial parts of the flowering plant Mentha x piperita L.

In 10% liquid or semi-solid preparations, it is used topically for the symptomatic relief of mild tension type headache. Topical application of peppermint oil produces a prolonged cold sensation by the stimulation of the cold-sensitive receptors, giving an analgesic effect.

The treatment consists of rubbing the preparation on the skin of the forehead and temples, which can be repeated two times at 15-minute intervals. One treatment daily.

Avoid eye contact with unwashed hands after the application of peppermint oil because it may potentially cause irritation.

The use in children and adolescents under 18 years of age is not recommended due to lack of data on safety and efficacy. If the symptoms worsen during the use of the medicinal product, a doctor or a pharmacist should be consulted.

#2 Sage leaf for relief of inflammations in the mouth or the throat

Sage leaf is the common name for the leaf of the plant Salvia officinalis L. The plant is cultivated or gathered to obtain the leaf for medicinal use.

It’s traditionally used for the relief of inflammations in the mouth or the throat. Make an infusion by boiling 2.5 g (approximately 1 large spoon) of comminuted sage (leaf reduced into tiny pieces) in 100 ml of boiling water.

The infusion is used warm to gargle 3 times daily. If the symptoms persist longer than 1 week, a doctor or a qualified health care practitioner should be consulted.

#3 Melissa leaf for mild symptoms of stress, sleep aid, and mild digestive disorders

Melissa leaf is the common name for the leaf of the plant Melissa officinalis L.

Melissa leaf preparations are obtained by drying and powdering, or comminuting (reducing into tiny pieces) the leaf. This may be used to prepare extracts or tinctures (an alcoholic extract of the plant material).

Herbal medicines containing melissa leaf are usually available as herbal tea or in solid and liquid forms. Melissa leaf can also be found in combination with other herbal substances in some herbal medicines.

Melissa leaf can be used to relieve mild stress symptoms and to aid sleep. It can also be used to treat the symptoms of mild digestive disorders, including bloating and flatulence (wind). Use in these conditions is based on traditional use.

Herbal tea: 1.5-4.5 g of the comminuted herbal substance, approximately 1-2 large spoons, is prepared in 150 ml of boiling water as a herbal infusion, 1-3 times daily. Detailed instructions on how to take melissa leaf medicines can be found in the package leaflet that comes with the medicine.

A doctor should be consulted if the symptoms persist following 2 weeks of treatment.

It is considered a very safe herb, and so far, there have been no side effects reported. Melissa leaf should only be used in adults and children over the age of 12 years. The use in children under 12 years of age has not been established due to a lack of adequate data.

Note: This is only an informative article. You must seek out a doctor for all serious ailments.

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Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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