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Winter is coming: How to stay happy and healthy

It's easy to enjoy the summer when living in Europe. Warm days and late sunsets allow plenty of time to socialise, exercise and enjoy yourself. The colder months, however, are a slightly different proposition.

Winter is coming: How to stay happy and healthy
A jog a day: Regular walking or jogging not only increases fitness, but reduces your chances of suffering from seasonal illnesses. Photo: Getty Images

Autumn and winter mean shorter days, colder nights and often a range of health challenges. Not only are seasonal colds and flu circulating, but low temperatures and light levels make it more difficult to keep in shape, and moods dip. 

Together with international health insurance broker ASN, we identify proven ways in which you can stay fit, healthy and happy as the year draws to a close. 

Cold, coughs and flus – oh my! 

Avoiding the cold and flus that come with the cold weather can be difficult, but there are some things that you can do to minimise the risk, that go beyond washing your hands or wearing a mask. 

Clinical studies across the globe have demonstrated that regularly taking vitamin C, echinacea and (most importantly) zinc may boost the immune system’s defences, and in some cases prevent illness. 

For those with health issues such as hypertension, pre-existing respiratory or heart disease, seasonal viruses can be devastating. In these cases, doctors recommend a yearly flu vaccine. These protect against the yearly dominant strains and can vastly reduce the severity of illness, should you get sick. 

As Giovanni Bretti from ASN Customer Care tells us, “The good thing about international health insurance is that you can include or exclude benefits such as vaccinations and specialised respiratory care, tailored to your needs.”

Avoid worry and gloom this winter – get a quote on your international health insurance from ASN

Ski, skate, cycle or spin

Of course, we know that you can minimise your odds of getting seriously ill by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a good level of fitness – but how do you keep that up when it’s dark and cold outside? 

Majuran Panchalingam, an International Insurance Consultant from ASN shares some tips: “When it starts to get cold outside, I mainly train indoors. Furthermore, I make everything ready the evening before. Skipping training becomes more difficult when I have already packed my training things.”

Also, something as simple as installing a free pedometer on your smartphone can help. Studies demonstrated it can increase average daily physical exercise by around 20 percent.

For those with a competitive streak, depending on which app you choose, you can receive detailed analysis on your walks or runs, including distance, speed and elevation.

An increasing number of apps also allow you to virtually ‘walk’ a set distance, such as the length of the Great Wall of China. Some even award a real medal or certificate upon completion. 

Regular exercise can also help prevent injury to muscles and joints but should you get hurt in an accident, such as slipping on an icy pavement, it’s important to seek medical assistance and specialised help as soon as you can. Some health insurance policies, like those arranged by ASN, will even give you free access to physiotherapists and other physical specialists. 

By dealing with problems as they occur, you can not only avoid more invasive treatment and possible mobility issues but also save on healthcare costs. Who doesn’t want that? 

ASN gives you peace of mind in the colder months by finding you the best offers on international health insurance 

Autumn splendour: Taking advantage of cool, dry weather to get outside and socialise with friends is an important part of staying healthy. Photo: Getty Images

Get out of the gloom 

The colder months don’t just impact physical health – they can have a remarkable effect on mental health as well. 

This is for a complex range of reasons. Some scientists have linked shorter days and longer nights to decreased serotonin production in the brain, while others have suggested it provokes changes in our circadian rhythms – our routines of wakefulness and sleep. Rather than be social and get out, we just want to sleep. 

What has been shown to work are two things: getting outside during the daylight hours, and the regular use of a sun lamp, available in many shops. Both can have the effect of fooling the brain into proceeding as normal, and avoiding a low mood. 

Internationals are especially susceptible to poorer mental health in the colder months, as they might find themselves isolated while those around them are celebrating the holiday season. It’s important to stay connected and socialise when possible. Many forums and websites for internationals regularly hold events to facilitate social interaction and this can be a great way to stay connected and make new friends.

If you do find yourself experiencing a persistent low mood, speaking to someone about the challenges you’re facing and receiving the proper support can help. 

Mental health therapies are usually covered in standard international health insurance plans. If you are working with a broker, such as ASN, they will do their best to support customers in their preferred language to find out what is covered and what kind of possibilities there are to find peace of mind again.

The best investment in your health

One of the best things an international living abroad can do to safeguard their health throughout the year, and especially in the darker months, is to consider an international health insurance policy. 

Such policies, like those brokered by ASN, give 24-7 access to a global network of doctors, specialists and other healthcare professionals who can provide the personal care you need, when you need it. Not only that, but if you need to be transported to your home country for specialised care, this may be covered by an international health insurance policy. 

These policies often also include coverage for preventative care, to help you avoid illness and mitigate conditions before they become chronic. 

Just as consistent exercise, taking advantage of social activities, and getting yearly flu shots are investments in your health through autumn and winter, an international health insurance policy can ensure you can make the most of your life abroad. 

Take comprehensive control of your health this winter with a quote on international health insurance through ASN  

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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: How to make doctor’s appointment in Italy

Sooner or later, every foreign national living in Italy will need to see a doctor. Here's a guide to making your first appointment.

EXPLAINED: How to make doctor's appointment in Italy

Making a doctor’s appointment is usually thought of as a fairly uncomplicated task but everything gets a little harder when you’re in a foreign country.

And in Italy, the process can turn out to be surprisngly tricky, especially if you’ve just relocated to the country and are not yet familiar with how the Italian healthcare system (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, or SSN) works.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy? 

On top of that, Italian doctors and other healthcare staff are rarely fluent in English and only very few sections of the SSN’s website provide information in languages other than Italian. 

So to make things a little easier, here’s what you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Italy.  

Who can make an appointment to see the doctor?

Only people who hold a valid Italian health card (tessera sanitaria) or an equivalent, i.e. a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or a UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), can access public health services, including visits to a general practitioner or family doctor (medico di base).

For emergency treatment, the Italian health service provides care to anyone in need regardless of their nationality or immigration status and without asking for upfront payment.

In a medical emergency, call 118 for an ambulance or head to the emergency ward (pronto soccorso) of the nearest hospital.

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

A GP making a prescription

Only people that hold a valid Italian health card or a EU equivalent can access public GP’s services. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

How to register with a doctor

In order to make an appointment (visita) with a general practitioner (medico di base) within the SSN, you must first be registered with that particular doctor.

While in some countries you may call the local doctor’s office and book an appointment with any doctor on duty, that is not how things usually work in Italy and you’ll be under the care of one particular professional.

However, registering with an Italian doctor isn’t nearly as straightforward as it should be. 

Firstly, patients are expected to view the list of doctors operating within the area covered by their local health authority (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL). 

Though in some cases these lists can be found online, in others residents will have to directly ask their ASL to be sent a copy, or visit the ASL office in person to see it.

Then, taking the location and office hours of the listed professionals into account, patients are asked to pick the doctor that’s best suited to their needs and communicate their choice to the ASL.

READ ALSO: Tessera sanitaria: How do you apply for or renew your Italian health card?

While in some areas this can be done online, most ASLs ask that patients turn up in person at their Scelta e Revoca (Choosing and Cancelling) offices and show an ID card, a valid Italian health card or equivalent (EHIC or GHIC) and a certificate of residence

Registrations are generally processed immediately and the doctor’s contact info and booking details are emailed to the patient right after.

How to book an appointment

Once you’re registered with a family doctor or GP, you can go ahead and book your first appointment. 

A booking can generally be made via phone, email or, in some cases, online.

However, as previously mentioned, healthcare staff, including receptionists, are rarely fluent in English, so email or online bookings might be the better options if you’re not really proficient in Italian – if this option is available.

Doctor speaking on the phone

Patients can book an appointment with their GP via phone, email or, in some cases, a designated online booking platform. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

During the first appointment, patients are usually handed a form to fill out with general information about themselves and their overall health. 

Due to these formalities, the first appointment might last a little bit more than normal appointments, which are usually around 15 to 20 minutes.

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system  

It’s also worth noting that, though they provide patients with a set appointment time, Italian doctors’ clinics tend to run a little late, so be prepared for a wait once you arrive.

All consultations with an Italian GP, including the first appointment, are free of charge.

Referral to specialists

GPs can refer patients to a specialist for further diagnostic exams or medical procedures.

However, unlike in other European countries, people choosing to see a specialist through the SSN cannot select the doctor they will be referred to as they will be given the earliest available appointment.

The referral comes in the form of a red prescription (ricetta rossa) with letters P, D, B and U indicating the different levels of urgency associated with the consultation – P marks the lowest priority level, whereas D is for consultations that must take place within 72 hours from the time of prescription.

The ricetta rossa allows patients to book their appointments online, in person or over the phone by calling the relevant Regional Central Booking Office (Centro Unico di Prenotazione Regionale, CUP).

Nurse looking at X rays

Patients choosing to see a specialist through the public healthcare system cannot select the doctor they will be referred to. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Again, foreign nationals with a poor command of Italian may find that online bookings are the best available option given that most operators are not fluent in English.

Private doctors 

As in other European countries, Italian residents can choose to see private GPs or specialists.

Private healthcare is of course provided at a fee – typically anything from €40 to €160, depending on the type of service required – and, in most cases, fees must be paid upfront. 

Unlike public health authorities, private providers do not require patients to have a tessera sanitaria or a valid equivalent.  

Aside from the above distinctions however, booking an appointment in the private sector is no different than booking one within the SSN, with patients being allowed to book via phone, email or a designated online platform. 

If you’re looking for an English-speaking doctor, the US Embassy in Rome and the Consulates General in Milan, Florence and Naples provide lists of English-speaking professionals available for private consultation. These can be downloaded here.

The UK government provides a similar list

Essential vocabulary and useful sentences

  • SSN (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) – National health system
  • ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale) – Regional health unit
  • Medico di base – General practitioner 
  • Ricetta – Prescription
  • Visita – Appointment 
  • Specialista – Specialist doctor
  • Farmaco – Medicine
  • When booking by email or phone, a useful phrase is: Vorrei fissare una visita alle ore X di X (I would like to schedule an appointment for [day] at [time]).
  • Should you need to cancel the appointment, you could say: Purtroppo, devo cancellare la visita.
  • To ask to reschedule it, you could say: Sarebbe possibile spostare la visita?

To describe your illness, you can check out our terminology guide for the most common ailments.

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