Spanish flu

Colombian Spanish, Illness in Spanish
I caught a cold: tengo gripa, or estoy agripado, or me dio gripa. Photo: William Brawley CC BY 2.0

Katie Jacoby helps those of us sick to death of not knowing how to describe our illnesses in Spanish


This week I felt a cold coming on. It seemed like a great excuse to talk about feeling sick in Colombian Spanish so, from the sniffles to chikungunya, here’s how to cope, Spanish-wise.

I’m sick is estoy enfermo (think of sending someone to the infirmary), but a very common way to say that you’re feeling bad is estoy maluco or me siento maluco. The noun form of this adjective is maluquera: tengo una maluquera also conveys that you’re feeling lousy. Tengo un malestar is a more formal way of saying the same thing. Estoy indispuesto is a more formal and elegant way of saying that you’re sick, like saying, I’m ill. I’ve never found a convincing way of saying that someone feels sick as a dog in Colombian Spanish, but you can compare how bad you feel to what it must feel like to have the plague: tengo una peste horrible, tengo la peste or estoy apestado.

So, what do you have? A cold? The flu? Here in Colombia and in some other countries, these are treated as pretty much the same animal: la gripa. Note that it’s gripa and not gripe, as it is in most countries. So, you say tengo gripa, or estoy agripado, or me dio gripa: I caught a cold. Resfriado or catarro – common words for a cold in other countries – are not words you’re likely to hear in Bogotá.

Medicines are called drogas or remedios far more than they’re called medicamentos, and you can also say medicinas. Pills are almost always called pastillas, not píldoras. You can see that pastillas is the diminutive form of pastas, so if you hear someone ask for pastas at the farmacia or droguería, there’s no need to tell them that the Italian restaurant is around the corner.

¡Qué te mejores! is your standard way of telling someone to get well soon. If you know that someone has been sick and you want to check in on them, you can ask them ¿cómo sigues? or, more specifically, ¿cómo sigues del ojo/estómago? or whatever body part was ailing them.

Losing your voice is always a pain in the neck. When this happens, you’ll say, estoy afónico. Estar ronco means that your voice is hoarse. Tener carraspera is another way of saying this, kind of like saying that you have a frog in your throat.

Speaking of frogs, there’s this great little rhyming chant in Spanish that parents say to little kids when they get a boo-boo and think that the world is going to end: Sana que sana colita de rana, si no sana hoy sanará mañana. Basically, get better, little frog tail, if not today, then tomorrow.

What are the best local remedies to take when you get a cold in Bogotá? Their versions of chicken noodle soup include: aguapanela with lemon and cinnamon, honey with milk, and the like.

There are many old wives’ tales here that revolve around not mixing hot and cold, for fear of causing anything from a cough to crippling you permanently. Some examples are not opening the refrigerator right after coming home all hot and sweaty after exercising, or not running your hands under cold water right after ironing. You and I might roll our eyes, but many Colombians seem to take this folk wisdom pretty seriously.

People also tend to be a little OCD about cold air. As grandma would say, “Quick, quick, close that window, you’ll let el chiflón in!” El chiflón being a draft that can have all kinds of pernicious effects. And don’t go from a warm inside environment to the cold outdoors unprepared, or you risk the danger of el sereno, or, a deadly chill. Very much talked about as a sort of bogeyman, the dreaded sereno is also infamous for increasing the effects of alcohol on the brain. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I hope you never have the need to use any of this vocabulary, but it’s always good to have it in your back pocket just in case. Make sure you’re always properly bundled up (especially your feet), if not for your own well being then at least for the sensibilities and concern of the Bogotanos around you. When in Rome…


By Katie Jacoby

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