I’ve long since seen the need for better medical definitions in our Chinese/English dictionaries. But my recent quest for a stronger anti-inflammatory drug has made me think there’s a problem that might not be the dictionaries’ fault.
The standard over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and painkiller out here is Fēnbìdé 芬必得 (picture here). The English on the back of the box says “Ibuprofen Sustained Release Capsules” and according to Wikipedia, Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory.
Ok, so I’ve got Ibuprofen. But I want something stronger for a little case of tendinitis. So I go to the pharmacy and ask for what most dictionaries agree is the Chinese for anti-inflammatory drug:
xiāoyán yào 消炎药 [disappear inflammation medicine]
The guy nods knowingly and gives me a box of Cefradine, an antibiotic!
Pharmacists out here aren’t always the most knowledgeable. Maybe the guy just made a mistake. So I go to the local (village) hospital and talk to a doctor.
Here’s the English translation of our conversation (with some select Chinese words to show what was said):
Me: I’m looking for a stronger anti-inflammatory (xiāoyán yào 消炎药).
Doc: (picks up my box of Cefradine) You’ve got it. All we can give you is this.
Me: But that fights bacteria (xìjūn 细菌), right?
Me: I don’t need that. I’m looking for something to fight inflammation (yánzhèng 炎症).
Doc: We don’t distinguish between those kinds of medicine.
Me: What?! For example, this box of Fēnbìdé 芬必得 that I’ve brought. What kind of medicine is this?
Doc: That’s just a painkiller (zhǐtòng 止痛).
Me: Ok, you know if I play tennis for a long time, the tendons in my elbow will get inflammed?
Doc: It’s called tennis elbow (wǎngqiú zhǒu 网球肘).
Me: Yes exactly! What kind of medicine would you give me for that?
Doc: (picks up box of Cefradine again) This.
Now, I’m no doctor. But I’m pretty sure antibiotics aren’t going to help with tennis elbow.
I went to another pharmacy and faked a back injury to see what medicine they would give me. I kept asking for the strongest stuff they’ve got (stronger than Fēnbìdé 芬必得, please) and finally ended up with Meloxicam. Now, that actually is an anti-inflammatory.
So why this blog post? I’ve noticed that, perhaps just as we don’t have a concept of shànghuǒ 上火 (which amazes the Chinese), the Chinese don’t really have a concept of what antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs really are. The recent news about cracking down of overuse of antibiotics in China usually cites corruption as the main contributing factor. Only one article I found (in my 2-second Google search) talked about the need for better education to correct the problem, and that was public education. But remember it was the doctor himself who said “We (doctors? Chinese?) don’t distinguish between those kinds of medicine.”
From time to time, I’ve asked students or friends what kind of medicine they took for various things (ear infection, etc.). While I’ve heard names of antibiotics like amoxicillin (ā mò xī lín 阿莫西林) thrown around, they’re always called “xiāoyán yào” 消炎药 by the Chinese. I’ve never heard anyone say “kàng shēng sù” 抗生素 or “kàng jūn sù” 抗菌素 or any of the dictionary entries for “antibiotic”. MDBG is the only dictionary I’ve seen that lists “antibiotic” as the definition of “xiāoyán yào” 消炎药 (which, remember, literally breaks down to “disappear inflammation medicine”).
So, please leave a comment if you have any theories as to:
- What words I really should use when referring to “antibiotic” or “anti-inflammatory”?
- Why doctors and Chinese don’t differentiate between the two (in my opinion) very different kinds of medicine?