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Personal / Health
Look after your health in the UK
Health (c)
Free treatment
  Finding a doctor
  Getting medical treatment or advice
  Keeping warm
  Managing your weight
  Further health advice


This page gives information about health for people who come to the UK from another country.

BMA A-Z Medical Encyclopedia
(British Medical Association)
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley
Date: June 2004
Click here for other books in the category: health

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The Department of Health is the government section which is responsible for health issues in the UK
The National Health Service (NHS) is the main organisation which provides health care in the UK
Obtain a medical card to show that you can receive NHS treatment (it contains your NHS number)
An EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) is used by people from the European Economic Area or Switzerland to show they are entitled to free healthcare
A health authority is an organisation which is responsible for providing public health services in its local area
A general practitioner (GP) is a local doctor, who you normally contact first about your health problems
A doctor's surgery is the room in which a GP sees patients; this is often within a health centre
A clinic is a medical department, usually within a hospital, which concentrates on a particular group of diseases
A prescription is a piece of paper on which a GP writes down the medicines which a patient needs
A vaccination is an injection which prevents you catching a disease (it "immunises" you against it)
Call an ambulance if you are seriously ill and need to go to hospital immediately: the telephone number to use is 999
A pharmacist is a qualified person who makes and sells medicines in a pharmacy (a chemist's shop)
An ophthalmic optician is a person who tests eyes for sight problems; glasses and contact lenses may be sold to correct these
A dentist is a person who treats problems with teeth; if you have tooth decay, the dentist may need to give you fillings

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Can I get free health care and hospital treatment while I am in the UK?

If you are visiting the UK and need urgent health treatment you should be able to receive this from an NHS hospital, but payment may be required afterwards unless you can show that you are entitled to free treatment.

If you are from a country in the European Economic Area (EEA) or from Switzerland you can obtain free NHS hospital treatment if you have a valid EHIC (European Health Insurance Card).
This covers all immediate treatment that may become necessary during your stay in the UK – but not treatment that could wait until you return home.
You still need travel insurance to be fully covered: the EHIC does not cover all medical costs, repatriation to your home country or associated costs such as accommodation for relatives.
[Note that UK residents should also obtain an EHIC before travelling to other countries in the EEA or to Switzerland. See:]

European Health Insurance Card

You may also be entitled to free hospital treatment if you are from one of the countries which has a bilateral healthcare agreement with the UK.
You will need to provide documents to the hospital to prove that you are from one of these countries.

If you are in the UK with a visa which lasts for six months or more, you should be able to have free treatment from the NHS from the start of your stay in the UK. You have to be accepted as being an "ordinary UK resident", which means being in the UK for a "settled purpose" (a short-term course of study may not be considered enough for this).

To be able to obtain free NHS treatment, you need to register with a doctor. You can then register with a dentist who accepts NHS patients (check-ups or treatment are not free, but the cost will be lower than if you are accepted as a private patient). Eye check-ups may sometimes be cheaper if you can show that you are a NHS member (by showing your medical card).

Even if you can have free treatment from the NHS, you will probably have to pay some charges for medicines ("prescription charges"), and for dental and optical check-ups or treatment.

If you cannot receive free treatment from the NHS, you should buy health insurance before you arrive in the UK.

Treatment at GUM ("genito-urinary medicine") clinics, which deal with sexual diseases, is free for anybody.

Note that there may be some advantages in paying for private health care instead of relying on free NHS care. For example, you may be able to receive treatment more quickly, and the quality of service may be better (for example, a dentist providing private treatment may be able to use more expensive materials for filling your teeth).

There is a detailed guide for overseas visitors on this site:

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How can I find a doctor, optician, dentist, pharmacy or hospital?

- You can use the NHS website:
England Doctors:
Northern Ireland

- You can use the electronic Yellow Pages at You need to specify where you are looking (enter the name of your town, or the first half of your postcode, or your borough or county), and what type of service you are looking for (choose from the list below):
For a dentist (teeth): "DENTAL SURGEONS"
For a chemist's (medicine): "PHARMACIES"
For a hospital: "HOSPITALS"

- You can find health services using UpMyStreet: Select Find My Nearest … , enter a postcode or town name, select Find by category and choose Health & beauty then the appropriate sub-category. The nearest ones will be listed first.

- Further details about your local doctors and dentists may be kept in a file at your local library.

- Your local Family Health Services Authority (shown on your medical card) can tell you names and addresses of doctors, dentists, opticians and pharmacists in your area.

- You can find a dentist service using this tool provided by the British Dental Association:

- Your school or landlord/landlady may be able to give you advice, or may be able to recommend a local doctor or dentist.

How do I register with a doctor?

You should register with a doctor in your local area as soon as you have found a permanent place to live.
The doctor's surgery and your accommodation may need to be in an area covered by the same health authority.
If you are studying at university, there may be medical centre on the campus (the welfare officer should be able to advise you).
When you register with a doctor, you should ask for details of when the doctor's surgery is open, how to make an appointment, and what to do if you need to contact your GP when the surgery is closed.
You should apply for a medical card, which contains your NHS Number (make a note of this number, as it will allow you to get free medical treatment from a National Health Service doctor or dentist). Your medical card is an official document containing your name and address, so you may also be able to use this card to prove where you are living.

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I am ill. What can I do?

Information on treating yourself is available from the NHS Direct Healthcare Guide at
For advice on less serious illnesses, you can visit a local pharmacy and ask the pharmacist for advice (the advice is free, and you don't have to buy anything).

You can telephone your doctor's surgery to make an appointment to see your GP.
(If you are not near your home, you can get free treatment from any family doctor if you tell them your NHS number)
If necessary, your GP may recommend that you make an appointment to see a specialist (this is called making a "referral")
If you need medicines, your GP will write a "prescription"; you fill in the back of the form and take it to a pharmacy
If you are very ill and you cannot go to the surgery, it is possible to ask a doctor to visit your house.

You can call a nurse for free health advice by telephone. These services are available at any time of the day or night. At first you will speak to someone who will gather information from you, then a nurse will call you back and discuss what you need to do:
England NHS Direct. Telephone: 0845 4647. Website:
Wales NHS Direct (Wales). Telephone: 0845 4647. Website:
Scotland NHS 24. Telephone: 08454 242424. Website:

If you live near an NHS walk-in centre (usually located in cities and large towns) you can visit one of these centres during their opening hours; you don't need to make an appointment. A nurse will give you basic medical advice or treatment for minor illnesses and injuries.

In some cities such as London there are private walk-in centres, usually near stations or in shopping centres. You will have to pay to see a doctor here, unless your medical insurance covers this cost. A company providing these services is MediCentre:

If you have had an accident and need immediate treatment, you can visit the accident and emergency (A&E) department or minor injuries unit of your local hospital and wait for a doctor to become available. You do not need to make an appointment.

For sexual health problems, you can visit the GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinic at your local hospital. You do not have to make an appointment, and you do not have to give your real name (the service is confidential, and free). For more information, see: Personal/Relationships.

If you are seriously ill and need to get to a hospital immediately, you can telephone 999 and ask for an ambulance.

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It is important to keep warm while you are in the UK. Here is some advice:

- In wintertime (especially in December, January and February), pay attention to weather forecasts on television or radio or websites such as: The day's maximum and minimum temperature will help you to know what to wear. If it is going to be particularly cold, you may want to avoid going out if it means you may have to spend a long time outside. Remember that if there is a strong wind it may feel much colder than the minimum temperature stated (this is know as "windchill"). Make sure that you know how to get home if you are out late at night, and consider going to bed early (the coldest time is in the early hours of the morning).

- If the heating in your room can be adjusted, make sure that you know how to change it. Tell the owner of your property (your landlord) if you are too cold - it may be that the central heating can be kept on for longer during cold periods. Ask if you can use a small portable electric fan heater in your room. Some landlords will not allow this because of the cost of the electricity - if so, estimate the cost and offer to pay for this. Always be very careful about safety with portable heaters - keep them clear of other objects and do not leave them on while you are sleeping.

- Wear layers of clothes. You can take off some of these layers when you go somewhere that is well-heated. The air which is trapped between your layers of clothing will help to keep you warm. Much of your body heat is lost through your head and feet, so wear thick socks and a hat and scarf when it is very cold.

- Buy a hot water bottle and a cover. You can hold the bottle while you are sitting down in your room, and can use it in your bed at night. If you get a good quality cover (such as the sheepskin cover shown below) you will not feel too hot and the bottle will stay warm for longer.

- A "throw" sized woollen blanket is useful for keeping warm. Buying a sleeping bag can be useful - you can sleep inside this in your bed, or even sit inside it while you are studying, and you can use it at other times of the year if a friend stays overnight.

- Eating a warm meal, drinking hot drinks, or taking a bath will make your body feel warmer.

- If you are driving a car in cold weather conditions, take your mobile phone (make sure it is fully charged) and something to keep you warm. It is possible your car may break down, or that snow, ice or traffic congestion make it difficult to continue driving on the roads.

Buy products to keep you warm

Blanket / throw
(John Lewis)

(John Lewis)

(John Lewis)

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Some people who come from another country and start living in the UK find that they put on some weight. These are some reasons:
- Living abroad can be stressful, and you may eat sweet things or drink alcohol to comfort yourself.
- You may not do as much exercise as when you were in your own country.
- There are many popular foods in Britain which contain a lot of energy ("high in calories"); for example milk products (milk, cheese, cream) and snacks (biscuits, sweets, cakes). You may also eat more processed meals - if you live with a host family you may be given these, or if you are cooking for yourself you may buy them because you want to cook your meals as quickly as possible.

If you want to avoid putting on weight, these are some things you can do:
- Buy some bathroom scales (see below), so that you can notice if your weight is changing and change your diet if necessary. These are not very expensive, and can be useful for weighing your bags before you travel back to your country (see: Life/Post).
- Take regular exercise. You can do exercise by yourself (or example: swimming, running, walking) or join a club. For details, see: Life/Sport/Guide. As well as helping you to lose weight, this may help you to feel more relaxed, and may be a good way to meet people and have fun.
- Try to eat a well-balanced diet. Make sure you eat enough fruit and vegetables or salad; try to eat fresh foods, buying from local markets if you can. Don't keep too many snacks in your room. If your host family is giving you meals which are too large, ask them for smaller portions. You should request more fruit or vegetables if they are not giving you enough of these.

How many calories do you take on with your takeaway? By Kerry Torrens
(Kerry Torrens is a trained nutritional therapist; the above article is from, used with permission)

Whether it's traditional fish and chips, a Chinese, home-delivered pizzas or the national dish of chicken tikka masala we all fancy a takeaway every now and then but what should we choose to avoid piling on the pounds?

As a general guide follow the tips below:

* When ordering pizza choose a small or medium rather than a large pizza and opt for a thin crust rather than a thick one. Toppings such as chicken, seafood and vegetables are much healthier than high fat toppings like salami or lashings of cheese; by adding extra veggies you’ll be notching up one of your recommended five a day! If you prefer pasta steer clear of the cream and cheese sauces. Choose those which are tomato or vegetable based and ask for a side salad instead of the garlic bread.
* In a Chinese restaurant select stir fry vegetables with chicken or seafood and steamed rice; avoid the fried foods including prawn crackers, spring rolls and fried rice.
* When having a curry favour the drier dishes such as tandoori chicken or a tomato based curry sauce such as rogan josh in preference to a cream based korma. Select side dishes like dahl, saag or raita, opt for plain boiled rice instead of pilau and steer clear of the naan
* In a Thai restaurant order light tom yum soup instead of spring rolls or other fried starters; grilled beef or chicken salads and stir fry vegetables are better options than creamy green or red curries or rich satay dishes.
* Kebabs are reasonably healthy because they’re grilled and tend to be served with plenty of salad but avoid high fat extras such as cheese. Any additional sauces or marinades may also be high in salt or sugars.

If you do indulge in the odd burger or fish and chip supper then cut down on your fat intake from other foods during the day and try to eat some vegetables and salad alongside your meal. And whatever the takeaway obviously exercise a bit of common sense about the size of meal you order unless you want to turn into a ‘super-sized me’.

If you feel that you have a weight problem (either gaining or losing too much), see your doctor or call NHS Direct for advice (see above).

Bathroom scales

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Do you have any general health advice?

To have the best chance of remaining healthy while you are in the UK:

- Avoid taking any illegal drugs
- Do not share needles or syringes with another person
- Do not have too many different sexual partners
- Use a condom if you have sex with someone
- Ask about getting immunised against meningitis and hepatitis B
- Go to a dentist for a check-up at least once a year
- Use dental floss; change your toothbrush regularly; avoid brushing your teeth too hard
- Avoid having too many sweets or fizzy drinks between meals
- Take regular exercise (for example, walking or swimming)
- Give yourself enough sleep (use earplugs if noise keeps you awake)
- Keep yourself warm and dry (carry an umbrella or raincoat with you if it may rain)
- Wash your body every day to keep clean
- Use sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun on a hot day
- Eat well, including plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Don't wait to be ill before you register with a GP or dentist
- Make an appointment to see your doctor if you are worried about something about your health

Where can I find further information about health issues?

- World Health Organisation
For international health recommendations, see the World Health Organisation (WHO) website: Information from WHO is available in English, French or Spanish.

- UK government health information
The Department of Health provides advice about travelling to countries outside the UK:
For UK health information, see NHS Direct:, or the National Health Service (NHS):

- Health guidance for international students
UKCISA's guidance notes on "Keeping healthy" and "Welfare benefits and international students":

- General health information
Net Doctor:
Student Health:

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Personal safety: Personal/Safety
Preparing to come to the UK: Prepare/Planning
Sexual health information: Personal/Relationships

Home page: Home

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