Unmasking Meds: Allergies in Japan

By

allergy-1
March 13, 2014

It seems like every native citizen Japan has them, and come soon, the entire country will be strapped in one giant surgical mask. For a newcomer arriving just as allergy season hits, it feels a little like walking into a national quarantine unit– seeing hundreds of people in surgical masks blaze through Shinjuku Station is enough to make any newbie a little nervous.

My first month here I didn’t know what half of my new co-workers looked like because they were all cloaked in face masks.

Kafunshō (花粉症 ), or pollen allergies, are super common in Japan. I’ve been told that if you don’t have allergies now, stay here a while and you’ll eventually develop them (yay!). If you find yourself sneezing your face off while the cherry blossoms are blooming, you might be getting a real case of The Allergics. And if you already have allergies… woo. You know it’s time to prepare.

There are loads of non-drug ways to help fight off symptoms you probably already know: the masks, keeping your house and clothing dust-free, and being super clean in general all help lower your exposure to pollen. But, all told, most folks I know take something, either RX or OTC to alleviate allergic misery.

A lot of newcomers bring a supply of drugs over with them, or think “Hey I’ll have so-and-so send them to me.” BUT… there are pretty strict OTC drug laws here—don’t start your new life here by unwittingly becoming a drug smuggler.

Over-the-counter drugs in Japan are categorized according to severity of side-effects and potency; they come in three classes. You can tell which class the drug falls in by looking at the bottom corner and finding the kanji listed for each:

Class 1: (第1類医薬品): These may require a consultation with the pharmacist, as they might have impairing side effects. The laws on OTC drugs are changing, so when in doubt, bring a translator and seek professional advice.

Class 2: (第2類医薬品): These don’t require a consultation. These are the category many OTC allergy and cold meds fall under. You can buy these online or at your local drugstore.

Class 3: (第3類医薬品): These don’t have known side effects. Buy at any drugstore.

You can obviously see a doctor and get allergy meds if you’re profoundly plagued, but there are a few OTC products available. Disclosure: I’m a writer, not an allergist—these are just products I’ve seen, researched and/or tried).

Zaditen:
This is a well known allergy brand makes antihistamine eye drops, nose sprays, and allergy medication itchy eyeballs and congestion due to dust or pollen. You can find the line at Matsumoto or online at Rakuten or Kenzo.

Purple Shot:
I freaking love Purple Shot. It’s a numbing throat spray that just makes everything in the world right. This is a good product to keep in your medical stash for colds, allergy irritation, or too much karaoke. At Matsumoto.

Stonarhini:
A multi-symptom allergy tablet like Claritin or Allegra that can be found at any drug store. The directions say to take at bedtime (read: it’s probably going to knock you out.)

Allegra:
The old stand-by. I didn’t see Allegra at Matsumoto, but you can buy 120mg tablets online at Rakuten.

Need a doc? Here’s a great resource…

International Medical Hotline:
The Association of Medical Doctors in Asia (AMDA) For English-speaking specialists or GPs in your area. Everyone needs this number in their phones.
03-5285-8088

So breathe easy people. It’s almost time for Hanami!

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Writer, actor, beauty junkie, smart aleck.

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  • Patuki

    Which ones are non-drowsy? If any?

    • http://www.lauramackinnon.com Laura

      Allegra (アレグラ), Claritin (クラリチン), and Zyrtec (ジルテック) are all non-drowsy and (I think) still require a prescription here in Japan (but are OTC in other countries).

      Zyrtec is called Reactine in Canada (but branded as Zyrtec in Australia and the US) – The main active ingredient is Citirizine (セチリジン) and it is, I think, the best of the bunch (I’ve been using it for years).

      • http://www.gaijinpot.com/ Anthony Joh

        How does one go about getting a prescription here in Japan? Is it as easy as just visiting a doctor and asking for one?

        • http://www.lauramackinnon.com Laura

          Your best option is to visit a doctor somewhere like “Tokyo Medical Surgical” in Tokyo (but it’s not part of the Japanese National Health Care system). However, if you’re outside Tokyo, and you visit a Japanese doctor, and specifically request a prescription for セチリジン (Citirizine, the primary active ingredient in Zyrtec), the doctor should agree to write you a prescription for it.

          From a number of people I’ve talked to, however, it seems the local clinic’s first step is usually to prescribe one of the standard OTC antihistamines that make you drowsy and are not that effective. If the doctor you see won’t write a prescription for Zyrtec/Citirizine, just go elsewhere. Another option is to get someone to send you some from overseas (if you have contacts in Australia or Canada or the US).

          Personally, I’ve got about 35 yrs of experience with allergy specialists, treatment, and meds, so I don’t bother with Japanese doctors and I just bring Reactine from Canada whenever I visit. Therefore, I have never really explored the OTC vs. prescription options here.

          Out of curiosity, a quick search on Rakuten right now seems to suggest that a Japanese company (Sato) is now selling 10mg Citirizine under the Stona brand (ストナリニZ) and it seems to be OTC – check this link (if the comment box allows the URL to be posted):
          http://item.rakuten.co.jp/yoshihashi/z06-d1-4987316014395-003/

          It may seem a bit pricy, but, unlike almost all Japanese medicines, you only take 1 pill every 24 hours.

          Hope this is of some help. You can contact me via Twitter if you need more info (twitter/tokyololas)

        • http://www.lauramackinnon.com Laura

          I answered this, but the reply didn’t show up (perhaps because there was a Rakuten URL in it?)

          Anyway, any doctor should be able to give you a prescription. Just ask for セチリジン (Citirizine). However, it seems, from several people I’ve spoken to, that the usual default of Japanese doctors is to suggest or prescribe the less effective and drowsy-making type of antihistamines. If you’re in Tokyo, you could try a visit to Tokyo Medical and Surgical Clinic (but it’s outside the Japanese health care system).

          I usually bring it from Canada when I visit, so that is an option to (or you can get someone to send you some from the US or Australia).

          Also, and this is BIG NEWS, it seems that the Stona brand of medicine (by Sato pharmaceutical) is now selling セチリジン under the name ストナリ二Z (Stona-RiNi-Z) and it is OTC. Rakuten sells it. It may seem a bit pricy, but unlike most Japanese medicines, you only take one pill per day.

          • http://www.gaijinpot.com/ Anthony Joh

            Awesome thanks Laura. Is the ストナリ二Z non-drowsy?

    • Frank

      Quercetin is a naturally occurring bioflavonoid, non prescription, non drowsy. I get it online at iHerb, four dollars for shipping, free for orders over sixty dollars. iHerb is a great place to get supplements, etc. Takes 3-5 days to get to Tokyo. No duty to pay.

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