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Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Spain

Falling ill sometimes is inevitable, so if you're feeling unwell in Spain you'll want to know how to explain your symptoms and situation correctly, whether it's to the pharmacist or your boss.

sickness vocab spanish
Familiarise yourself with the Spanish vocab you'll need when you fall ill. Photo: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

It’s the time of year when people start suffering from all sorts of autumn malaise, as children return to school and adults to the workplace.

That means that if you are feeling poorly and you live in Spain, you’ll need to be familiar with certain words that help you describe what you have and the symptoms, as just saying estoy malo/a (I’m sick) won’t cut it. 

La gripe : The flu. Some Spaniards may say gripe to describe a bad cold, but generally you’d call it gripe if you have a temperature. Bad flu can be described as un gripazo and you can also use the adjective engripado/a to describe yourself as having the flu.

Example: Tengo gripe, me encuentro fatal (I have the flu, I feel horrible)

Un resfriado: A cold. Un resfriado is how Spaniards refer to the common cold, with milder symptoms than the flu. Resfriado is both the noun and the adjective, so you can say tengo un resfriado (I have a cold) or estoy resfriado

Example: He pillado un resfriado, eso me pasa por no abrigarme (I’ve caught a cold, serves me right for not wrapping up)

Un constipado: Don’t be fooled by this false friend in Spanish, as it describes having a head cold (blocked nose) rather than constipation in the bowel area (which by the way is estreñimiento in Spanish). Again, constipado is both the adjective and the noun, so you can say estoy constipado or tengo un constipado.

Example: Estoy constipado, no paro de sonarme la nariz (I’ve got a head cold, I can’t stop blowing my nose)

Covid: Ah yes, the virus that dominated our lives for two years and is still around (minus the rules and restrictions). If you get tested (hacerse la prueba) and you test positive (dar positivo), you no longer have to self-isolate (hacer cuarentena) or wear a mask (llevar mascarilla) but you may want to do that anyway to prevent your loved ones and colleagues from getting el coronavirus

Example: Me he hecho la prueba de antígenos y he dado positivo por Covid (I got an antigen test and I tested positive for Covid)

Los síntomas (The symptoms)

You will need to describe your symptoms, either to a pharmacist if you want over the counter medicine or to the doctor if you require a day off sick.

La fiebre: to have a temperature or a fever. A slightly high temperature is referred to as febrícula.

Example: Tengo fiebre alta y escalofríos (I’ve got a high temperature and the shivers)

La tos: A cough. If you have one of these you will likely need one of the various jarabes (cough syrup) on offer.  There is a wide range of jarabes antitusivos, mucolíticos and expectorantes available over the counter depending on whether you are suffering from una tos seca (dry cough) or are bringing up flema (phlegm). You may also want pastillas para la garganta, throat lozenges or cough drops to help ease the symptoms.

Example: No paro de toser, es una tos seca (I can’t stop coughing, it’s a dry cough)

Dolores musculares/mialgiasA bout of the flu often brings muscle aches or joint pains. You may not have la gripe but be suffering una contractura (muscle cramp). If a paracetamol doesn’t fix the problem, you may need to get some analgésicos (painkillers). 

Example: Tengo dolores musculares en la espalda y en el cuello (I’ve got muscle aches in my back and neck)

Dolor de cabeza: A headache can be described as simply dolor de cabeza , whereas more constant or recurrent headaches can be referred to as cefalea or migraña (migraine). These can be treated with pastillas (pills) such as aspirina, ibuprofeno or naproxeno.

Example: Tengo un dolor de cabeza que no puedo ni pensar (I’ve got such a bad headache it won’t let me think)

Estornudos: Sneezing in Spain is met with the expression ¡Jesús! or ¡Salud! in place of “Bless you!” and is often accompanied by secreción nasal (a runny nose) otherwise known as mocos (snot). The verb to sneeze is estornudar.

Example: No puedo dejar de estornudar, ¿no tendrás un Kleenex? (I can’t stop sneezing. You don’t have a tissue, do you?)

Dolor de garganta: A sore throat often accompanies colds and flu or could be caused by inflamación de las amígdalas (inflammation of the tonsils) which may require antibióticos, available only with una receta médica (doctor’s prescription).

Example: Me duele mucho la garganta, por eso estoy ronco (Me throat hurts a lot, that’s why I’m horse)

La farmacia (chemist or pharmacy)

Your first point of call should always be the pharmacy where you will find a huge selection of medicines available over the counter. Pharmacists (farmacéuticos) in Spain do receive extensive medical training so are able to provide consultations and advice on a range of minor illnesses.

Pedir la baja (calling in sick)

If you are too sick to go into work then you may be required to go to a doctor to get a baja – a signed sick note – which must be provided to the employer within three days of the first day of sickness, delivered either in person, by a colleague or via email.

If it’s a short-term illness (such as the flu) then this may be accompanied by an alta (fit for work document) so as not to require a repeat visit to be given the all clear a few days later.

If a sick period lasts beyond seven days then a repeat visit to the doctor and a repeat baja must be signed.

It’s no longer compulsory in Spain to request sick leave if you have Covid-19, although depending on how serious your symptoms are you may want to reach a teletrabajo (work from home) agreement with your boss.

You must be back at work the day after the alta is signed which must be presented at work within 24 hours. 

Example: Voy a tener que pedir la baja porque me encuentro muy mal (I’m going to have to get a signed sick note because I feel very unwell)

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For members


Pan: Seven everyday Spanish expressions with the word ‘bread’

What does 'eaten bread' mean in Spain? Or to 'make good crumbs'? As bread is such a staple of the Spanish diet, it's no surprise there are loads of expressions with the word 'pan', but most have nothing to do with the food.

Pan: Seven everyday Spanish expressions with the word 'bread'

Pan comido: the equivalent of saying ‘easy peasy’ in English. It translates literally as ‘eaten bread’ but it’s used to describe anything that’s easy or straightforward, most usually referred to as fácil in Spanish. 


El examen fue pan comido.

The exam was easy peasy.

Al pan, y al vino, vino: This expression is used to say that you have to call things by their name, without beating about the bush, like ‘saying call a spade a spade’ in English. Its origins are Catholic, as bread (pan) and wine (vino) are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ.


Al pan, y al vino, vino. Laura es una mentirosa.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Laura is a liar.

Hacer buenas migas: ‘To make good crumbs’ actually means to hit it off with a person, to get on well with them. The saying comes from when nomadic shepherds would cross paths and share the ingredients they had to make a breadcrumb-based migas dish.


Los chicos han hecho buenas migas.

The kids have hit it off.

Ser más bueno/a que el pan: ‘To be better than bread’ is the same as saying ‘as good as gold’ in English, referring to someone’s noble and good behaviour. 


Jaimito es más bueno que el pan, se ha portado muy bien. 

Jaimito is as good as gold, he behaved very well.

Estar más bueno/a que el pan: Similar but very different meanings as ser bueno means to be good but estar bueno usually refers to someone being attractive/yummy. So don’t mix them up!

Lola está más buena que el pan. Me pongo malo de mirarla. 

Lola is so hot. I can’t even look at her. 

Ganarse el pan: ‘To earn the bread’ is a colloquial way of saying to make a living, or put food on the table. 


Mi padre se ganaba el pan como obrero. 

My dad put foot on the table by working as a builder. 

El pan de cada día: ‘The bread of everyday’ describes something that happens on a daily basis, it’s part and parcel, it comes with the territory. Sometimes this routine task can refer to work specifically, like saying ‘your bread and butter’ in English. 


Aguantar insultos es el pan de cada día para un árbitro. 

Putting up with insults is part and parcel of being a referee.