Apart from the thick layer of air pollution that sometimes blankets the city, Běijīng is a reasonably healthy place and you needn’t fear tropical diseases such as malaria. Your greatest health and safety issue is likely to be crossing the road. Bear in mind that if you do require immediate treatment, taking a taxi to hospital will often be quicker than waiting for an ambulance.
It’s worth taking your own medicine kit. It is also advisable to take your own prescription drugs with you, because they could be more expensive or hard to find in the capital. Antibiotics (kàngjūnsù) and sleeping pills (ānmiányào) are no longer prescription-free in Běijīng. If you require a specific type of drug, ensure you take an adequate supply. When looking for medications in Běijīng, take along the brand and the generic name so that pharmacy staff can locate it for you.
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As the national capital, Běijīng has some of China’s best medical facilities and services.
A consultation with a doctor in a private clinic will cost ¥500 and up, depending on where you go. It will cost ¥10 to ¥50 in a state hospital.
Bayley & Jackson Medical Center Full range of medical and dental services; attractively located in a courtyard next to Rìtán Park. Dental check-up ¥456; medical consultation ¥500.
Běijīng Union Hospital A recommended hospital, open 24 hours and with a full range of facilities for inpatient and outpatient care, plus a pharmacy. Head to International Medical Services, a wing reserved for foreigners which has English-speaking staff and telephone receptionists.
Běijīng United Family Hospital Can provide alternative medical treatments, along with a comprehensive range of inpatient and outpatient care. There is a critical-care unit. Emergency room staffed by expat physicians.
Hong Kong International Medical Clinic Well-trusted dental and medical clinic with English-speaking staff. Includes obstetric and gynaecological services and facilities for ultrasonic scanning. Immunisations can also be performed. Prices are more reasonable than at International SOS. Full medical check-ups start from ¥3000 for men, ¥3500 for women and ¥2200 for children. Dental check-up ¥350; medical consultation ¥690. Has night staff on duty too, so you can call for advice round the clock.
International SOS Offering 24-hour emergency medical care, with a high-quality clinic with English-speaking staff. Dental check-up ¥620; medical consultation ¥1320.
Pharmacies (药店; yàodiàn) are identified by a green cross. Several sizeable pharmacies on Wangfujing Dajie stock both Chinese (zhōngyào) and Western medicine (xīyào). As with many large shops in Běijīng, once you have chosen your item you are issued with a receipt that you take to the till counter (shōuyíntái) where you pay, then you return to the counter where you chose your medicine to collect your purchase. Note that many chemists are effectively open 24 hours and have a small window or slit through which you can pay for and collect medicines through the night.
Before You Go
Proof of vaccination for yellow fever is required if entering China within six days of visiting an infected country. If you are travelling to China from Africa or South America, check with a travel-medicine clinic about whether you need the vaccine.
The following vaccinations are recommended for those travelling to China.
Adult diphtheria/tetanus (ADT) A booster is recommended if it is more than 10 years since your last shot. Side effects include a sore arm and fever.
Hepatitis A One shot provides almost 100% protection for up to a year; a booster after 12 months provides another 20 years’ protection. Mild side effects include a sore arm, fever and headaches.
Hepatitis B Now considered a routine vaccination for most travellers. Given as three shots over six months, this vaccine can be combined with Hepatitis A (Twinrix). In most people the course gives lifetime protection. Mild side effects include a sore arm and headaches.
Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) Two lifetime doses of MMR are recommended unless you have had the diseases. Many adults under the age of 35 require a booster. Occasionally a rash and flulike illness occur about a week after vaccination.
Typhoid Needed if spending more than two weeks in China. A single injection provides around 70% protection for two to three years.
Varicella (chickenpox) If you haven’t had chickenpox, discuss this vaccine with your doctor. Chickenpox can be a serious disease in adults and has such complications as pneumonia and encephalitis.
Under certain circumstances, or for those at special risk, the following vaccinations are recommended. Discuss these with a doctor who specialises in travel medicine.
Influenza If you are over 50 years of age or have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, lung disease or heart disease, you should have an influenza shot annually.
Japanese encephalitis There is risk only in the rural areas of China. Recommended if travelling to rural areas for more than a month during summer.
Pneumonia (Pneumococcal) This vaccine is recommended for travellers over 65 or those with chronic lung or heart disease. A single shot is given, with a booster in five years.
Rabies Recommended if spending more than three months in China. Three injections given over a one-month period are required.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult a doctor who specialises in travel medicine before having any vaccines.
Healthcare in Běijīng is not free and bills can quickly mount up if you do require treatment, especially if you have to be admitted to hospital. If you already have health insurance, check with your provider to see if you are covered when you are in China. If not, make sure that your travel-insurance policy includes medical coverage. Ideally, any policy should cover all costs if you are admitted to hospital and provide emergency evacuation to your home country if needed.
It’s a good idea to consult your government’s travel-health website before departure.
- Australia (www.dfat.gov.au/travel)
- Canada (www.travelhealth.gc.ca)
- New Zealand (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US (www.cdc.gov/travel)
Don’t drink the tap water or eat ice. Bottled water (but check the seal is not broken on the cap), soft drinks, alcohol and drinks made from boiled water (tea, coffee) are fine.
‘Bird flu’ or Influenza A (H5N1) is a subtype of the type A influenza virus. This virus typically infects birds and not humans; however, in 1997 the first documented case of bird-to-human transmission was recorded in Hong Kong. The virus has been eliminated from most of the 63 countries infected at its peak in 2006, which saw 4000 outbreaks across the globe, but it remains endemic in China. Other variants of the virus, like H7N9, have emerged in China too.
Very close contact with dead or sick birds is the principal source of infection and bird-to-human transmission does not easily occur.
Symptoms include high fever and typical influenza-like symptoms with rapid deterioration, leading to respiratory failure and often death. It is not recommended for travellers to carry antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu; rather, immediate medical care should be sought if bird flu is suspected.
There is currently no vaccine available to prevent bird flu. For up-to-date information, check the website www.who.int/en.
This virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and infects the liver, causing jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), nausea and extreme tiredness. There is no specific treatment available; you just need to allow time for the liver to heal, which might take many weeks.
This disease is common in China and is transmitted via infected body fluids, including through sexual contact. The long-term consequences can include liver cancer and cirrhosis.
HIV & Sexually Transmitted Infections
The Chinese government takes HIV seriously, and overall HIV prevalence is low in the country. However, among certain high-risk groups – gay men, sex workers, intravenous drug users – prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is comparatively high, reaching 20% among some groups in some areas. Consistently using condoms during any sexual encounter is an effective way to protect yourself from becoming infected and never, ever share needles.
If you have engaged in any risky behaviour while travelling, including unprotected sex or injecting drugs, you should get a check-up immediately. You can do this at most major Chinese hospitals or at any Centre for Disease Control (疾控中心; jíkòng zhōngxīn). There’s one in every district of the city, including this one just off Nanluogu Xiang: Dōngchéng Disease Prevention & Control Centre.
For up-to-date information on HIV in China, visit the website of UNAIDS China (www.unaids.org.cn).
Flu is common in Běijīng in winter. This virus gives you high fevers, body aches and general symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose and sore throat. Antibiotics won’t help unless you develop a complication, such as pneumonia. Anyone travelling in winter could think about vaccination, but it is particularly recommended for the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions.
This is the most common problem faced by travellers in Asia. Most traveller’s diarrhoea is caused by bacteria and thus responds rapidly to a short course of appropriate antibiotics. How soon you treat your diarrhoea will depend on individual circumstances, but it is a good idea to carry treatment in your medical kit.
This is a rare disease in travellers that’s contracted after prolonged close exposure to a person with an active TB infection. Symptoms include a cough, weight loss, night sweats and fevers. Children under the age of five spending more than six months in China should receive BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccination. Adults are rarely immunised.
This serious bacterial infection is contracted from contaminated food and water. Symptoms include high fever, headache, a cough and lethargy. The diagnosis is made via blood tests, and treatment is with specific antibiotics.
Běijīng is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Although the government improved the situation prior to the 2008 Olympics and kept certain measures in place after the games (eg restricting car use), those with chronic respiratory conditions should ensure they have adequate personal medication with them in case symptoms worsen.
Běijīng's smog has become notorious worldwide, but air-pollution counts hit record levels in January 2013. The month was dubbed 'Airpocalypse' by the world's media as measures of fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) reached an incredible 750 micrograms per cubic metre (and 900 by some measurements). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only PM2.5 readings of less than 50 are considered to be 'good', while the World Health Organization deems 25 to be a safe level.
The air in summer is generally less polluted than winter and travellers who arrive during spells of beautiful blue skies may well wonder what all the fuss is about, but the statistics are frightening. PM2.5 readings were regularly over 300 for six months of 2015 and went over 600 on certain days in November and December 2015.
Travellers, particularly those who are sensitive to air pollution, might want to consider buying a smog mask for their visit. You can find advice on which masks to buy on the excellent website Air Quality Index China (www.aqicn.org), which also publishes real-time pollution readings for Běijīng and other cities.
Places in Běijīng that stock good-quality masks include Natooke, Plastered 8 and Torana Clean Air (www.toranacleanair.com), which has two branches in the city. If you have kids in tow, you might want to buy their masks from home, as good-quality children's masks, which fit properly, are harder to find in Běijīng.