What are OTC drugs? What are over-the-counter medications?

OTC drugs are medications that we can buy without a doctor’s prescription. The letters OTC stand for over the counter. In this article, the words drugs and medications have exactly the same meaning.

The following information comes from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

“Over-the-counter medicine is also known as OTC or nonprescription medicine. All these terms refer to medicine that you can buy without a prescription. They are safe and effective when you follow the directions on the label and as directed by your health care professional.”

OTC drugs are typically used to treat a condition that does not require a doctor’s direct supervision. Also, clinical trials must have shown that the medication is reasonably safe and well tolerated. OTC medications should have little or no potential for abuse.

Many different OTC drugs

If you look at what a typical pharmacy has in its stocks, you will see that it sells hundreds of different OTC drugs. They are available in various forms, including liquids, creams, ointments, capsules, pills, and tablets.

OTC medications are intended to treat a wide range of illnesses, conditions, and health issues such as heartburn, allergies, colds, fever, and pain.

Below are the most common categories of OTC medications:

  • Pain relievers, also known as painkillers

Examples include ibuprofen, acetaminophen/paracetamol, and aspirin. NSAIDs are OTC medications. The letters NSAID stand for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

  • Cold and allergy medications

Examples include antihistamines (for allergies) and decongestants.

  • Antacids and acid reducers

Such as calcium carbonate and ranitidine.

  • Stool softeners and laxatives

Examples include psyllium and bisacodyl.

  • Expectorants and cough suppressants

Such as guaifenesin and dextromethorphan.

Prescription drugs

Over-the-counter medications contrast with prescription drugs, which we can only obtain with a doctor’s prescription. If I want to buy an antibiotic such as penicillin, I will need a prescription. Antibiotics are not OTC medications; they are prescription drugs.

The most widely sold prescription medications include:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Anti-diabetics.
  • Antihypertensives.
  • Antivirals.
  • Asthma and COPD medications.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • Beta-blockers.
  • Opioid pain relievers.
  • Proton pump inhibitors.
  • Statins.

In these categories listed above, some have both OTC and prescription medications. For example, in the category of proton pump inhibitors, which reduce the amount of stomach acid the glands in the lining of the stomach make, there is Omeprazole (Prilosec OTC), which is OTC, and the prescription medication Esomeprazole (Nexium).

OTC drugs - over the counter medications

Image created by MedicalVocab.com.

OTC drugs are safe

Over-the-counter medications are considered safe and effective for members of the general public to use. However, you must follow the directions on the label and never exceed the recommended dosages.

If you are unsure about a specific OTC medication, ask the pharmacist about it. Make sure that the person you are talking to is a qualified pharmacist.

When buying OTC drugs

While OTC medications are convenient and widely available, we must remember to use them responsibly. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Labels

Always read the label and follow its directions and warnings.

  • Drug interactions

Check for interactions. Does that drug interact with other medications or medical conditions? If you are not sure, ask the pharmacist.

The following quote comes from Pharmacy Times:

“Acid suppressants have the potential to change the absorption rates of other medications by raising gastric pH.”

  • Dosages

Make sure that the dosage you are taking or giving your child is appropriate for your/their age group.

  • Beware of overdosing

Don’t use multiple OTC drugs with similar active ingredients, as this may raise the risk of overdose or side effects.