There are no special health risks you'll encounter in Italy. The tap water is safe -- excellent, even -- and medical resources are high quality.
General Availability of Healthcare -- With Italy's partially socialized medicine, you can usually stop by any hospital emergency room with an ailment, get swift and courteous service, receive a diagnosis and a prescription, and be sent on your way with a wave and a smile -- without filling out a single sheet of paperwork. However, the benefits of Italy's partially socialized medicine really apply only to Italians, so foreigners should be prepared to pay medical bills up front.
Pharmacies offer essentially the same range of generic drugs available in the United States, plus a lot of them that haven't been approved yet by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Pharmacies are also the only place you'll find simple stuff such as aspirin and run-of-the-mill cold medicines: You won't find Tylenol at any old corner store (even if there were such a thing as a corner store).
Strangely, though, I have found it very hard to locate decongestants in Italy the way you can in other countries. If you regularly suffer from a stuffy nose, it is best to pack a good supply of Sudafed with you before you leave.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
For travel abroad, you may have to pay all medical costs up front and be reimbursed later. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. Your health insurance in your home country may not cover any extended treatment abroad. However, even if you don't have insurance, you will be seen and treated in an emergency room, just as you would at home.
Northern Italy has good hospitals, and Italy's public health care system is generally well regarded.
Pharmacies in Italy are ubiquitous (look for the green cross) and they serve almost like mini-clinics, where pharmacists diagnose and treat minor ailments, like flu symptoms and general aches and pains, with over-the-counter drugs. In Italy, most over-the-counter drugs are available in either generic form or a local brand. You may want to pack a simple decongestant, which is oddly rare in Italy. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise, they won't make it through airport security. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name.
Pharmacies in Venice, Milan, and several other towns in northern Italy often take turns doing the night shift. Normally there is a list posted at the entrance of each pharmacy, telling customers which pharmacy is open which night of the week.
If you experience an emergency, dial tel. 113, Italy's general emergency number. For an ambulance, call tel. 118.
Italy is a remarkably safe country, and in my opinion, northern Italy is one of the safest regions on Earth. The worst threats you'll likely face are the pickpockets that sometimes frequent touristy areas and public buses; just keep your valuables in an under-the-clothes money belt there and you should be fine. There are, of course, thieves in northern Italy, as there are everywhere, so be smart; don't leave anything valuable in your rental car overnight, and leave nothing visible in it at any time to avoid tempting a would-be thief. I have had a car full of valuables, including my passport, stolen on a respectable street in Milan, so it does happen. The fact that there is so little overt crime in Italy, though, is a good thing, as police enforcement is notoriously lax. If you do happen to be robbed, you can fill out paperwork at the nearest police station, but this is mostly for insurance purposes -- don't expect them to actually hunt down the perpetrator or find your lost valuables.
In general, avoid public parks at night and public squares in the wee hours of the morning. The square in front of Milan's main train station is pretty dodgy at any hour. Travelers -- especially young women -- should avoid the port area of Genoa after dark. Other than that, there is a remarkable sense of security in this wealthy corner of the world.
Unfortunately, a level of racism still exists in Italy, and recent immigrants from Africa are often discriminated against and are occasionally accused of committing the few crimes that do exist in northern Italy -- even if the accusations are unwarranted. As a result, people of African descent may meet some skeptical looks in the northeast especially, unless they clearly appear to be well-heeled Westerners. Late at night, however, if there is trouble around, police will probably not make any distinction at all.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.