Have you ever been sick (‘under the weather’) while you were abroad? Apart from getting health insurance before you travel, do you know how our health service works and what you can access if you need treatment? And do you what phrases will be the best to use in a meeting with a doctor or specialist?

In this article, I will explain the British health system, how to get treatment, how to handle a meeting with a doctor, and explain the most useful phrases to use. This information will help you to feel confident when you need to access medical care in the UK.

Your options when you feel under the weather

In the UK when we have a health problem, we have three options: (1) we can go to see the doctor, (2) go to a walk-in health centre, or (3) go to a hospital. They all have different approaches, so I will explain when we use them.

Option 1 – the doctor

When we get a health problem that is not life-threatening, we see a local doctor first. Students can go to their local health centre. Make sure that you have your passport, student card, health insurance details, a utility bill and/or accommodation contract (hotel bill) to prove your identity and UK address.

When you go to a local surgery, you can’t just demand an appointment. The surgery can decide whether they will see you and they can charge you fees. If the doctor or General Practitioner (GP) agrees to see you, you must make an appointment at reception and they may not have one free for hours, days or weeks. It is the same for their registered patients. An appointment is a maximum of 5-10 minutes, but if you have several problems you should mention this at reception so they can give you a double appointment. If you are a woman, and a doctor is a man, you can ask for a female member of staff to be present at the consultation. At the consultation/appointment, the doctor will show you where to sit down and may say any of the following:

Hello, how are you?

How can I help you today?

What seems to be the problem?

The doctor will then diagnose and treat your problem by offering advice and/or prescribing medication for you which you must buy from a pharmacy. If the doctor believes you need special treatment, however, they will write to a specialist (known as a consultant) in a local or national hospital and you must wait for the consultant to send you an appointment time. Depending on how busy the consultant is, you may have to wait several months for an appointment.

Option 2 – a walk-in centre

You can go to a walk-in-health centre. They can find them on the internet. They have fully qualified doctors, who can provide the same service as your local surgery and they will see you the same day. The doctor may send you to the hospital directly if they feel you need urgent treatment. Afterward, the walk-in centre will send details about your treatment to your local doctor. If they give you a prescription for medication, you can get this from the 24-hour chemist and the walk-in centre will tell you where they are. Some hospitals have walk-in centres too. Please note: you can only buy anti-biotics in the UK with a prescription and you can only get that from a doctor.

Option 3 – the hospital

You can go straight to the hospital accident and emergency department if you get sick, but if your complaint is not life-threatening, you will have to wait several hours to see a doctor because they will always see people with urgent problems first. For this reason, the average waiting time for accident and emergency (A&E) appointments is 4 hours in most hospitals. The advantage is that you may see a doctor straight away if your issue is indeed urgent.

If you need urgent help – having a baby, accidents fall, broken bones, continuous bleeding, or poisoning – you can call 999 for an ambulance, or dial 112, the emergency number for Europe. State your name, address, your problem, and the service you need: ambulance, fire service, police or coast guard. On the 112 number, they will check your location. Please note that the 999 service is ONLY for life-and-death situations. They do NOT provide a taxi service or answer general knowledge questions for people playing party games!!!

If you arrive at the hospital by ambulance, you should go straight to the casualty ward (emergency dept) for an assessment and treatment. If you arrive by taxi, you must register at reception firs and ten waits to be called for an assessment, which is known as ‘triage’ (pronounced ‘tree-arge’). The doctor or nurse will assess you and decide which medical staff will see you.

Other options

Sometimes we get small health issues that make us feel unwell, but where we just need some good advice in order to start self-treatment at home. For these situations, you have two other options:

Option No1 – the chemist

You can go to a pharmacy (chemist), such as Boots or Lloyd’s, and ask to speak to the pharmacist privately. They are trained
to offer treatment for small things like colds, fevers, stomach aches and skin rashes, etc, but they are not doctors and will not treat you if they believe your condition is serious. Most pharmacists and chemists now have a private room for these sort consultations so you can speak confidentially. They will listen to your problem and either sell you an appropriate medicine or recommend a local doctor’s surgery or family health centre/clinic for you to visit.

Option No2 – the 111 helpline

You can call the National Health Service (NHS) helpline on 111. This telephone line runs 247 and it is unique because you can speak to a trained adviser who can connect you to a fully trained nurse, emergency dentist, or even a GP. They can arrange face-to-face appointments if they think you need one and they can also assess if you need an ambulance and send one to you. There’s also a confidential interpreter service in many languages. Simply mention the language you wish to use when the NHS 111 operator answers your call. When you ring this number, be patient because the trained advisors will go through a detailed questionnaire.

General phrases about how you feel
I feel under the weather
I don’t feel well
I feel sick as a dog
I feel so ill, I want to die
I’m feeling just a bit fragile
I am hungover

Useful phrases for meetings with doctors

I’m ill/unwell

I feel sick/unwell/bad

I don’t feel good/well/healthy

I can’t breathe properly

There’s blood when I go to the toilet

I’ve cut myself and there’s blood everywhere!

I’ve got a cold/fever/ the ‘flu

I think I’m pregnant/having a baby

I’ve been sick/thrown up/puked/vomited

I’ve been in a car accident/in a car crash

My back/head/stomach/ear/tooth hurts!

I’ve got a pain in my head/neck/back/leg

I’ve sprained/twisted my ankle/knee/back

I think I’ve broken my arm/leg/foot/hand/nose

I’ve been stabbed/knifed/punched/wounded/shot

I fell downstairs/off my bike/off a ladder/off a chair

I keep falling over/fainting/passing out/falling asleep

It hurts when I walk/run/talk/eat/move my head/breathe/have sex/

I’ve got spots/pimples/redness/a rash on my face/neck/back/arm

I’m seeing double/white spots/a moving white spot/everything in blurred vision

What treatment do you recommend for me?

What are the side-effects?

How long should I do the treatment for?

Should I see you again and when?

Do I need to see a specialist?

What specialist will you send me to?

Where is the specialist based?

Fees – will I have to pay?

All British patients make a contribution to their healthcare. We pay tax to the state for it, and we also pay fees for prescriptions, for example. If you are visiting the UK for less than 6 months, you must buy medical insurance to cover payment for medical treatment if you get sick or are in an accident. If you are staying for more than 6 months, then you will pay an Immigration Health Surcharge as part of your visa application. Emergency treatment may be free, but the law is changing, so please check this. The following websites give more information: