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Over-The-Counter Medicine: What It Is and How To Use It

Written by Ally Streelman

NowRx Pharmacy

Over-the-Counter Medication

You can likely find some form of over-the-counter medication (OTC) in every medicine cabinet across America. From supplements to pain relievers, most are common medications that can be used to treat a variety of ailments including colds, heartburn, or aches and pains. 

However, many don’t understand what makes a particular medication over the counter or what that means in terms of the medication.

Let’s take a deeper dive into over-the-counter medications and some of their unique characteristics.

What does over the counter mean?

“Over the counter” or OTC describes medications that you can purchase on your own, without a prescription from your healthcare provider. The opposite of this is “behind the counter” medicine, which you can only access through a pharmacist.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides whether a medicine is safe and effective enough to sell over-the-counter. However, that doesn’t mean they are without risk. 

OTC medications promote ease of accessibility and treatment for common conditions like cold and flu, allergies, muscle and joint pain, etc. When you can access certain treatments without needing to consult your doctor, you can take a more active role in your health care. With this role comes responsibility, though. Before taking OTC medicine, it’s important to understand the potential side effects. It’s also important to know how the medicine interacts with certain diseases and other medications you might be taking. 

Over-the-counter vs prescription

The largest difference between over-the-counter medication and prescription medication is that the latter requires a prescription from your doctor. With OTC medicine, on the other hand, you can walk right into your local pharmacy and pick up a bottle off the shelf. However, if you want your insurance to cover the cost, you may need a prescription for over-the-counter medicine too.

Like prescription medication, OTC medicines can have serious side effects. Because of this, it’s important to closely adhere to the instructions on any OTC product label. 

Are over-the-counter drugs covered by insurance?

Over-the-counter drugs may be covered by insurance. However, coverage typically depends on the type of drug and if the patient has a prescription. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers must cover certain OTC preventive medications at 100% with no co-pays, co-insurance, or deductibles. These include Aspirin, smoking cessation products, HIV Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and contraceptives, among others. However, this is only true when the patient obtains a prescription. 

You can review your insurance benefits package to learn what OTC drugs your plan covers under your over-the-counter benefit. For example, Medicaid plans cover OTC drugs that are given or prescribed by a healthcare provider for treatment, but coverage varies from state to state.  

While many OTC medications require a prescription for coverage, there are other ways to pay for the medicine you need. Thanks to the CARES Act, if you have a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you can use the funds for over-the-counter drugs without a prescription. 

Common over-the-counter drugs

Some of the most common over-the-counter products are used to treat allergies, pain and fever, nausea, insomnia, and even anxiety. Here are the OTC drugs that you can find at your local pharmacy for these conditions and symptoms. 

  • Over-the-counter allergy medicine: The symptoms of allergies, such as a runny nose and watery eyes, can be treated with over-the-counter antihistamines. These include Loratadine (Claritin), Cetirizine (Zyrtec), and Fexofenadine (Allegra).
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, and ibuprofen, such as Advil or Motrin, are commonly used to treat pain and reduce fever. Aspirin is another popular otc pain reliever.  
  • Over-the-counter nausea medicine: Pepto-Bismol, Dramamine, and Emetrol are some of the most popular over-the-counter nausea medications. Each is helpful in different scenarios where one may experience nausea. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to learn which one is right for you. 
  • Over-the-counter anxiety medication: Some over-the-counter supplements may provide a more natural approach to reducing the symptoms of anxiety. These include 5-HTP, magnesium, and vitamin B-complex.
  • Over-the-counter antibiotics: Neosporin and other generic forms of bacitracin are topical antibiotics that can kill bacteria on the skin. Oral antibiotics, however, aren’t available over the counter. 
  • Over-the-counter sleep aid: Insomnia is a common reason people visit the pharmacy and many OTC sleep aids are available. These include Benadryl, Aleve PM, and Melatonin. However, using a sleep aid consistently can affect its ability to make you sleepy

While these drugs are safe and effective for over-the-counter use, they aren’t suitable for everyone. For instance, those with high blood pressure should not take certain decongestants or antihistamines. And those who have kidney disease should not take ibuprofen.

Once again, it’s critical to understand how a drug — even a widely available OTC drug — will interact with your body and other medications before taking it. 

How to use over-the-counter medicine

To get the most out of your over-the-counter medicine and reduce the potential risks, follow these best practices: 

  • Compare the list of ingredients when choosing between OTC medicines.
  • Choose a medicine that treats only your current symptoms, not additional symptoms you aren’t experiencing.
  • Always read the label carefully before taking any OTC medication. Take note of the warning signs, special instructions, and what to avoid when taking the medicine, i.e., alcohol or driving. 
  • Pay attention to the dosage instructions on OTC medication, as dosage varies based on age and weight.
  • Avoid taking any OTC medications while pregnant or nursing before consulting your doctor or pharmacist. 
  • Know your allergies and if certain medications may trigger allergic reactions. 
  • Use accurate equipment such as syringes or measuring cups to measure doses, especially when giving children medicine.
  • Toss medications after their expiration date.
  • Talk with your pharmacist about other medications you may be taking.
  • When in doubt, ask questions.

Questions? Talk to your pharmacist

Over-the-counter medications can be dangerous when taken incorrectly or when taken in tandem with other OTC or prescription medications. Next time you go to pick up that bottle of pain reliever or allergy medicine, head to the counter to ask your pharmacist if it is right for you. 

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