Unmasking Meds: Allergies in Japan
By Cynthia Popper
On 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 hay fever, is 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
So breathe easy people. It’s almost time for Hanami!