Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are drugs you can buy without a prescription. They treat a variety of minor health conditions. Most OTC medicines are not as strong as what you can get with a prescription. But that does not mean they are without risk. In fact, not using the OTC medicines safely can lead to serious health problems.
Here is what you need to know about OTC drugs.
About OTC Medicines
You can buy OTC medicines without a prescription in:
- Drug stores
- Grocery stores
- Discount and department stores
- Convenience stores
- Some gas stations
When used properly, OTC medicines can help protect your health by:
- Relieving symptoms such as pain, coughing, or diarrhea
- Preventing problems like heartburn or motion sickness
- Treating conditions such as athletes foot, allergies, or migraine headaches
- Providing first aid
When Should you use OTC Medicines
It is fine to use OTC medicines for most minor health problems or illnesses. If you are not sure, ask your health care provider or your pharmacist. Your provider can tell you:
- Whether an OTC medicine is right for your condition
- How the medicine might interact with other medicines you take
- What side effects or problems to watch for
Your pharmacist can answer questions such as:
- What the medicine will do
- How it should be stored
- Whether another medicine might work as well or better
What the Label can Tell you
You can also get information about OTC drugs on the medicine label.
Most OTC medicines have the same kind of label, and soon all of them will. That means whether you buy a box of cough drops or a bottle of aspirin you will always know where to find information you need.
Here is what the label will show you:
- Active Ingredient. This tells you the name of the medicine you are taking and how much is in each dose.
- Uses. The conditions and symptoms the medicine can treat are listed here. Unless your provider tells you otherwise, do not use the medicine for any condition not listed.
- Warnings. Pay close attention to this section. It tells you if you should talk with your provider before taking the medicine. For instance, you should not take certain antihistamines if you have a breathing problem like emphysema. The warnings also tell you about side effects and interactions. Some medicines you should not take when using alcohol or taking other medicines. The label will also tell you what to do in case of an overdose.
- Directions. The label tells you how much medicine to take at one time, how often to take it, and how much is safe to take. This information is broken down by age group. Fully read the directions, because the dosage may be different for people of different ages.
- Other Information. This includes such things as how to store the medicine.
- Inactive Ingredients. Inactive means the ingredients should not have an effect on your body. Read them anyway so you know what you are taking.
The label will also tell you the medicine's expiration date. You should dispose of it and not take it once that date has passed.
Other Ways to use OTC Medicines Safely
- Examine the package before you buy it. Make sure it has not been tampered with.
- Never use medicine you have bought that does not look the way you think it should or that is in a package that appears suspicious. Return it to the place you bought it from.
- Never take medicine in the dark or without glasses if you are unable to see clearly. Always be sure you are taking the right medicine from the right container.
- Always tell your provider what medicines you take. This includes prescription and OTC medicines as well as herbals and supplements. Some prescription medicines will interact with OTC medicines. And some contain the same ingredients as OTC medicines, which means you could end up taking more than you should.
Also be sure to take steps to keep kids safe. You can prevent accidents by keeping medicine locked up, out of reach, and out of sight of children.
OTC - using safely
US Food & Drug Administration website. OTC drug facts label. www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-information-consumers/otc-drug-facts-label. Updated June 5, 2015. Accessed November 2, 2020.
US Food & Drug Administration website. Understanding over-the-counter medicines. www.fda.gov/drugs/buying-using-medicine-safely/understanding-over-counter-medicines. Updated May 16, 2018. Accessed November 2, 2020.
Review Date 8/13/2020
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.