Health & insurance
France is a healthy place, so your main risks are likely to be sunburn, foot blisters, insect bites and mild stomach problems from eating and drinking with too much gusto.
Before You Go
Citizens of the EU, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway or Liechtenstein receive free or reduced-cost, state-provided health-care cover with the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for medical treatment that becomes necessary while in France. Each family member will need a separate card. UK residents can get application forms from post offices, or download them from the Department of Health website (www.dh.gov.uk), which has comprehensive information about the card’s coverage.
The EHIC does not cover private health care, so make sure that you are treated by a state health-care provider (conventionné). You will need to pay directly and fill in a treatment form (feuille de soins); keep the form to claim any refunds. In general, you can claim back around 70% of the standard treatment cost.
Citizens of other countries need to check if there is a reciprocal arrangement for free medical care between their country and France.
- Bring your medications in their original, clearly labelled, containers.
- A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names (French medicine names are often completely different from those in other countries), is also a good idea.
- Dental care in France is usually good; however, it is sensible to have a dental check-up before a long trip.
No vaccinations are required to travel to France, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all travellers be covered for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and polio, regardless of their destination.
Availability & Cost of Health Care
For basic requirements, chemists (pharmacies) in France are extremely helpful and sell a wide range of medicines not requiring a prescription (ordonnance).
As a visitor, you can either make an appointment or sit in line (depending on the doctor's practice) to see a médecin généraliste (doctor or general practitioner). Expect to pay between €35 and €50 up front, part or all of which your health insurance will then reimburse.
Providing you can prove you have valid insurance (ie to reimburse the cost of health treatment), you don't have to pay up front to receive emergency treatment at a hospital.
Tap water country-wide is drinkable.
Some fountains in villages and towns also spout drinking water – 'eau potable' means 'drinking water', 'non potable' means undrinkable. In the chic capital, there is even the odd drinking fountain gushing sparkling water.
Lack of oxygen at high altitudes (over 2500m) affects most people to some extent. Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) usually develop in the first 24 hours at altitude but may be delayed up to three weeks. Mild symptoms are headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. Severe symptoms are breathlessness, a dry, irritative cough (followed by the production of pink, frothy sputum), severe headache, lack of coordination and balance, confusion, vomiting, irrational behaviour, drowsiness and unconsciousness. There’s no rule as to what is too high: AMS can be fatal at 3000m, but 3500m to 4500m is the usual range.
Treat mild symptoms by resting at the same altitude until you recover, which usually takes a day or two. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) or aspirin can be taken for headaches. If symptoms persist or grow worse, however, immediate descent is necessary; even 500m can help. Drug treatments should never be used to avoid descent or to enable further ascent. Diamox (acetazolamide) reduces the headache of AMS and helps the body acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. It is only available on prescription.
To prevent AMS:
- Ascend slowly – have frequent rest days, spending two to three nights at each rise of 1000m. Acclimatisation takes place gradually.
- Sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day, if possible. Also, once above 3000m, care should be taken not to increase the sleeping altitude by more than 300m per day.
- Drink extra fluids. Monitor hydration by ensuring that urine is clear and plentiful.
- Eat light, high-carbohydrate meals for more energy.
- Avoid alcohol, sedatives and tobacco.
Heat exhaustion follows excessive fluid loss with inadequate replacement of fluids and salt. Symptoms include headache, dizziness and tiredness. Dehydration is already happening by the time you feel thirsty – aim to drink enough water to produce pale, diluted urine. To treat heat exhaustion, replace lost fluids by drinking water and/or fruit juice, and cool the body with cold water and fans.