Italian Sicknesses I Never Knew Existed But Now Believe In Wholeheartedly

The first time I walked around Marco’s house without shoes or socks on I thought his mother was going to faint – and my feet weren’t even that dirty!

She scurried away and was back with the worst pair of pink slippers I’ve ever seen, they had little purple hearts sewed on top, adding another layer to the toes. “Here, wear these, then you won’t get cold!” she said, satisfied. Did I mention it was August?

I’ve come to learn that his mom’s reaction was completely normal. Though it’s partly because Italians wear slippers in the house year round, sandals or crocs in the summer and real slippers with a thick sole in the winter, it’s mainly because they believe that having cold feet is the equivalent to licking a sick persons tonsils – you will get cold and you will die. Or at least, catch a bad cold. At the time it was a mild August and the ceramic or marble floors in their house aren’t conducive to staying warm. Marco’s mom was trying to protect me.

Still, it didn’t take long to be admonished for other health-related faults. Cover your throat! Blow dry your hair! And don’t even get me started on “digestive issues.” (which is so extensive that I’ve decided to leave it out of this post all together, largely because I’m still learning). When I was eating enough pasta to feed a small whale I politely said that I was having some issues, that maybe I’d just eat a little salad for dinner instead. The response? “Are you sure? Isn’t salad a little heavy?” Ya can’t win.

Actually, there are many of these Italian maladies that I’ve seemed to assimilate to during my time here, against my best logical intentions. When I asked Marco the symptoms to cervicale without sarcasm, I knew I was in deep. Maybe you too will recognize some of these oft-ignored diseases state side:

Colpa d’aria

Literally translated as a “hit of air” this sneaky little guy is why Italians (and, I hear, the French) wear scarfs from late September to May, and sometimes on a windy summer night. Colpa d’aria is a hit of cold air to your throat. The sinister air will immediately dry your throat, it will cause sniffles and pain, your throat will be so sore you can’t swallow and we all know that all this leads to even greater sicknesses. For years I scoffed – weak! – now I gasp at my American friends whose necks are exposed after sunset. How little they know!

Prendere freddo

Along with the colpa d’aria, you must be very very attentive that you don’t “prendere freddo” that is, get cold. If you happen to allow the cold to hit you it can cause the common cold, the flu or, worse, indigestion. And we’re not talking about any old indigestion here but full on, drink hot water with sugar in it to make you burp, can’t poop for days or can’t stop pooping kind of indigestion, the most diabolical of Italian illnesses. So cover up, don’t go barefoot and be sure to cover your stomach well after eating, that’s when you’re most susceptible!


Made famous by a pair of Italian comedians, squaraus is actually a fake word, one lovingly used to replace the oh-so-unpleasant diarrhea. If you eat too much and then “prendi freddo” you will get squaraus. You will get squaraus and you will die. Well, you won’t die but we all know it’s unpleasant. Though I can’t relate (luckily!) this is one of my favorites simply because it’s hilarious to say and especially hilarious watching my Italian friends run around like worried chickens pulling their hair and saying “squaraus!” while they try to find warmth so that in one hour they won’t be running around holding their stomachs while they try to find a bathroom.


Pronounced churr-veee-cahl-eh (think hooked-on-phonics, not linguistics) cervicale is actually the seven vertebrae of the spinal cord that support the head and allow it to move. That is, the neck. In layman’s terms cervicale is used to refer to any sort of problem or disturbance of this area – more correctly “cervicaglia.”

I had heard this “cervicale” excuse used multiple times for why someone wasn’t well, usually as they rubbed their neck or temples, but really just assumed they meant “headache.” While cervicale often causes headaches it’s really so much more than that. Especially prominent in the winter because of the cold and humidity, symptoms are a rigidness in the muscles of the upper back and neck, a headache that can also be in the forehead and over the eyes, problem with sight, lightheadedness, muscle contractions …. you get the idea.

Leave it to Italians to not only have a fancy-schmancy name, but to use it widely and knowingly, giving it enough importance that you can use it to call off work. Funny, because real cervicale can only be diagnosed with x-rays or an MRI. Apparently cervicale actually does exist, but I think us in the Midwest just consider it another one of those things are dads tell us to “walk off.” It’s sleeping funny, it’s a sore back, it’s allergies, or most likely, it’s “life.”

Change in seasons

This is the most recent of my conversions. I’d heard of the ubiquitous change in seasons effects, but never fully experienced them, or perhaps never noticed. This year I had a solid ten days of exhaustion, no matter what I did or how much I attempted to sleep I still felt bone tired, my eyes heavier than even allergies usually caused. Marco’s parents both nodded knowingly, not even the slightest worried, “Yeah,” they shrugged, “It’s the change in seasons,” his dad responded. His mother added that she felt the same. Okaaaay. Or maybe it’s the top-notch pace we’ve had between work and the house and trying to live since January. I ignored it.

Until recently when I’ve begun feeling lightheaded. You know how sometimes your head spins when you stand up too fast? That happened to me every. single. time. For days I’ve felt like my head doesn’t weigh enough, that my eyes can’t focus well enough for the lightheadedness. Today I woke up to do yoga and instantly started in a cold sweat, tiny black dots covering my vision. My yoga session ended with me on the couch and a series of cracks in my cured nonchalance. It’s unnerving. Talking with a colleague I learned I wasn’t the only one, he too had similar symptoms. “It’s the change in seasons,” he said.

They say if you can’t beat them… “So it is,” I responded.

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3 Responses to Italian Sicknesses I Never Knew Existed But Now Believe In Wholeheartedly

  1. Gina Peart says:

    This is the best Gina! It made me laugh.. xo

  2. renee says:

    hahahahah i can’t wait to come over there next year!!!!!!!!!!! Im gonna make your inlaws cringe! i’ll be running around in nothing but swim suits and bare feet! ;) show them how the hippies do! hahahah jk love you!

  3. Pingback: Lessons in an Italian Cooking Class, Part II | From Italy, With Love

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