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Understanding Over The Counter Medicine

Andrew Bellingham

Andrew Bellingham

Pharmacist | 20+ Years | BPharm | Dip Clin Pharm

What Are OTCs?

Over the counter medicines, or OTCs, are medicines that you can of course order over the counter. They’re nonprescription medication that you can buy yourself – within the limits of the law. OTCs are generally safe when taken correctly. Simply read the leaflet carefully to ensure that it’s safe for you, and speak to a medical professional if you have any questions about it.

OTCs are made up of active and inactive ingredients. The active ingredients (APIs) are the main ingredients that execute the main functions of the drug. Because of this, you can find several medications with the same active ingredient that you can choose from for each ailment you have. It’s important to pay attention to the active ingredients in the medications you’re taking to ensure you don’t accidentally overdose.

There are some inactive ingredients, such as caffeine in cold medication, that can make the drug more efficient. This, alongside branding, can significantly affect pricing.

Most commonly, OTCs are used for:

In this article we’ll go into some guidance and best practices for using OTCs, as well as some potential problems to look out for.

Tips For Using OTCs

The first, most important thing, when taking OTCs is that you have to follow the instructions carefully, paying attention to the warnings. Because they’re common and easy to obtain and use, many simply skip this process. But doing so can be dangerous. Know exactly what you’re taking, and know exactly how to take them.

As mentioned previously, there are a number of medications with the same APIs (active ingredients), so you can choose medication best suited to you that’ll treat the same condition.

One tip to know what you’re taking is to choose medication that has the least amount of items listed.

Another thing to consider is that medicines tend to become less effective over time, so check the expiration dates. When your medicines have become less effective or have passed the expiry date, you may feel inclined to take an extra dose to combat this. This is very dangerous. It is a much safer option to change your medication.

Irrespective of all of the above points, speak to your healthcare provider if you fall into any of these categories:

  • You are on prescribed medication
  • Your symptoms are very bad
  • You have a chronic or long-term medical condition
  • You are not sure what is wrong
  • You are pregnant
  • Your symptoms are not improving with medication


Medicine Cabinet Essentials

Some symptoms and conditions are so common and frequent that it makes sense to have them ready to go for when you need them. The benefit of OTC drugs is that you can do this.

If you are concerned about what to get, your local pharmacy can offer advice. As qualified healthcare professionals, they are able to offer clinical advice, as well as help you get further help if they assess that you need it.

Listed below are some medicines that you should keep handy, and a brief description of what they’re used for:

  • Painkillers
  • Antacid, indigestion, treatments for constipation & diarrhea
  • Cold, flu and hay fever treatments
  • Sunblock, after sun
  • Basic first aid items

You can get over the counter antibiotics for infections as well. But as they are specific to the bacteria they are treating, it is generally advisable to speak to a healthcare professional prior to purchasing any.

If you have children, please make sure you store them safely. While many medications now come with child resistant packaging, they can still get into them.

Some OTC drugs and their brand names.


What if they don’t work?

Your medication may have a guidance printed on the packaging or leaflet that states how long your symptoms are expected to last. If they don’t, your pharmacist should be able to tell you.

If after this allotted time, your symptoms haven’t gone, improved, or you are feeling worse, you have the options to:

  • Call NHS111
  • Contact your GP
  • Go to the pharmacy for advice


Commonly Abused OTC Drugs

Unfortunately the ease of getting and keeping OTC drugs can mean that it’s easier to abuse them than prescription drugs. Legal medicines are among the most abused drugs.

One of the most common reasons for the abuse of OTCs are their addictive qualities. Either due to addictive ingredients, or their ability to manage chronic ailments, such as with painkillers and sleeping pills.

Medicines can become addictive by taking them more than prescribed, or by continued use causing the user to become dependent on them. Please be sure to check the packaging and leaflets of your medication to see if these effects are likely.

Some of the most commonly abused drugs are used for:

  • Insomnia or other sleeping problems
  • Chronic or mild pain
  • Anxiety and panic attacks

Some signs that you may be addicted – or becoming addicted – to your medication:

  • You are taking the drug even when it’s not required
  • You’ve developed enough of a tolerance to the drug to need more for the same effect
  • You can’t stop taking the drug, in spite of you wanting to

More signs of drug addiction

If you feel you are becoming addicted to your prescribed or over the counter medication, inform a healthcare professional. If you need treatment, you are entitled to NHS care.


To Summarise

OTC drugs vary from prescription medications in that you can get OTCs without a medical professional’s authorisation. OTCs are useful and safe, as long as you follow the instructions carefully, for treating minor ailments. If you ever have any questions or concerns that you can’t find on the packaging or in the leaflet, speak to your pharmacist, contact your GP, or use the NHS 111 telephone or online service.

Stay safe!


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