Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are drugs you can buy without a prescription. Some OTC medicines relieve aches, pains, and itches. Some prevent or cure diseases, like tooth decay and athlete's foot. Others help manage recurring problems, like migraines and allergies.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration decides whether a medicine is safe and effective enough to sell over-the-counter. This allows you to take a more active role in your health care. But you also need to be careful to avoid mistakes. Make sure to follow the instructions on the drug label. If you don't understand the instructions, ask your pharmacist or health care provider.
Also keep in mind that that there are still risks to taking OTC medicines:
- The medicine you are taking could interact with other medicines, supplements, foods, or drinks
- Some medicines are not right for people with certain medical conditions. For example, people with high blood pressure should not take certain decongestants.
- Some people are allergic to certain medicines
- Many medicines are not safe during pregnancy. If you are pregnant, check with your health care provider before taking any medicine.
- Be careful when giving medicines to children. Make sure that you give your child the correct dose. If you are giving your child a liquid medicine, don't use a kitchen spoon. Instead use a measuring spoon or a dosing cup marked in teaspoons.
If you have been taking an OTC medicine but your symptoms don't go away, contact your health care provider. You should not take OTC medicines longer or in higher doses than the label recommends.
Food and Drug Administration
- Getting the Most from Your OTC Medicine (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Medicines in My Home: Information for Adults on Using Over-the-Counter Medicines Safely (Food and Drug Administration) - PDF
- MedlinePlus: Drug Information - Information on prescription and over-the-counter medicines and supplements Also in Spanish
- Over-the-Counter Medicines: What's Right for You? (Food and Drug Administration) Also in Spanish
- Current Over-the-Counter Medicine Label: Take a Look (Food and Drug Administration)
- Generic Drugs: Questions and Answers (Food and Drug Administration)
- Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) Also in Spanish
- OTC Medicines: Know Your Risks, and Reduce Them (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Use Over-the-Counter Medicines Wisely (National Council on Patient Information and Education) - PDF
- Using Medicines Wisely (Food and Drug Administration) Also in Spanish
- Antihistamines: Understanding Your OTC Options (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Careful: Acetaminophen in Pain Relief Medicines Can Cause Liver Damage (Food and Drug Administration)
- Questions and Answers on Unapproved Chelation Products (Food and Drug Administration)
Statistics and Research
- Pharmacogenomics Fact Sheet (National Institute of General Medical Sciences)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Dos and Don'ts of Giving OTC Cough and Cold Medicines to Your Child (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish