Pharmacies are plentiful throughout major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, less so in rural areas. They are amazingly well-stocked, offering everything from shampoo to contact lens solution and a number of over the counter medications that require prescriptions in other countries.
Egyptian pharmacists usually have at least limited medical knowledge, and most speak decent English. Simply explain your condition or ask for a specific item and the pharmacist will be happy to help you. If you have a prescription from a hospital or medical clinic, hand the pharmacist the slip and he will procure it for you.
You will probably find over the counter medication much cheaper in Egypt than your home country. Brand-name birth control, for example, can be had for a fraction of its price in Europe or the United States. Cough, cold and flu medicines are more expensive, though still cheaper than in most other countries. Generic cold and flu medicines are much more inexpensive (and will be getting even cheaper now that the Ministry of Health plans to introduce 40 medicines’ prices by 10-60%). Unfortunately, the low prices do come with a few hazards.
A word of warning
Due to rampant poverty, Egyptian pharmacies are sometimes flooded with generic drugs of questionable quality. Some of these drugs don’t work, others are extremely powerful and a very small percentage have proven fatal.
As a rule, never take anything that does not come in a clearly marked package, and always take care to follow dosage instructions to the letter (even generic packaging usually has English instructions alongside the Arabic). If you’re unsure that you’ve been given an effective (or safe) generic medicine, ask an Egyptian friend or co-worker (or a fellow expat) for her opinion.
As with many other aspects of life in Egypt, use your instincts and a liberal dose of common sense when making decisions about generic medicines. It goes without saying that you should refrain from abusing the availability of powerful prescription drugs. Just because you can have an Egyptian pharmacy deliver a bottle of Xanax to your door doesn’t necessarily mean you should.