Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are non-prescribed medications that can be bought without a prescription from a doctor. Their use allows people to get rid of many annoying symptoms and treat some diseases at own discretion, avoiding the expenses and stress of visiting a physician. Although self-medication, encouraged by the abundance of safe and effective OTC drugs, is overall a safe practice, common sense and responsible attitude are still necessary to avoid regrettable outcomes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the following requirements for OTC drugs: the drug must be well known, often used in medical practice, included in the home first aid kit, and have no toxic effect on the body.

When using OTC drugs, it is necessary to clearly understand the limitations of self-treatment. In particular, non-prescribed medications can be used in such cases as:

  • Pain syndrome
  • cold-related diseases (common cold, acute respiratory infection, etc.)
  • irritation of digestive tract (dysperistalsis, heartburn, belching, dyspepsia, etc.)
  • insomnia, anxiety, asthenic syndrome
  • some allergic manifestations (rash, itching, food allergies, rhinitis, conjunctivitis)
  • vitamin deficiency
  • skin lesion
  • herpes simplex, seborrhea, dandruff, pediculosis, etc.

A list of over-the-counter medicines is regulated by various agencies in different countries, e.g. the Food and Drug Administration in the US or the National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities in Canada. In some countries a more detailed classification of drugs is applied. For instance, a number of drugs is sold without a prescription, however, a pharmacist is obligated to ask certain questions to decide if the product should actually be sold to the customer. Certain states or provinces may determine their own drug scheduling, so the OTC list may vary depending on the location.

Safety and Precautions

Safety is the main reason why a prescription drug can be transferred to the OTC group. All drugs have both beneficial and harmful effects. Some level of risk is considered acceptable if covered by the expected benefit from taking the medication. However, it is difficult to determine whether the level of risk is acceptable or not.

Safety of non-prescribed drugs depends on their proper use. Medication is based on the diagnosis, often erroneous, which is made by oneself. For example, in most cases, headache is not a sign of a serious illness, but sometimes it is an early signal of a brain haemorrhage or a brain tumor. Similarly, severe heartburn can be a symptom of a heart attack. Ultimately, a person relies on common sense, determining whether a symptom is insignificant or professional medical help should be sought right away.

When setting dosages for OTC drugs, manufacturers seek to balance between safety and efficacy. People who acquire those medications should read the instructions and follow them carefully. Since the same name could be assigned to both quick and slow acting medicine, each time you purchase a drug, check the package for information. Don’t expect that the dosage would always be the same.

In recent years, many different drugs have appeared with similar trade names, so it is important to check the components of the product being purchased rather than relying on a familiar brand. For instance, not all Maalox products contain the same components: some of them include aluminum and magnesium compounds, and others contain calcium carbonate. When choosing an over-the-counter drug, one should know which component is most important for treating the illness.

Some people have adverse reactions even when using OTC drugs properly. A severe allergic reaction to analgesics such as aspirin, ketoprofen and ibuprofen can manifest in itching, difficulty in breathing, and shock. These medicines can also irritate the digestive tract and cause ulceration.

Often the annotation doesn’t have a complete list of side effects, as a result, many people may be misled that these medicines have little or none of them. For example, an annotation may only say that the drug should not be taken for more than 10 days. In addition, the information in/on the package not always contains a description of the possible severe side effects related to prolonged use. Therefore, people can take medicine for chronic pain or inflammation not realizing this can lead to complications.

Drug interaction

Many people forget to mention the use of OTC drugs when consulting a doctor, especially medicines they take occasionally to treat cold, constipation, or headache. At the same time, OTC drugs can adversely interact with a wide range of medications. Although some annotations contain warnings about possible drug interactions, not all consumers are familiar with medical terms.

For example, annotations to certain cold medicines warn against taking the drug with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) used to treat depression. This important warning is not clear to people who are not aware of their antidepressant being a MAOI. The best way to reduce the risk of drug interactions is to ask the pharmacist to check their possible incompatibility. In addition, you need to tell your doctor about all other medications you are taking, regardless of whether they are sold with or without a prescription.

Duplication of drugs

Another possible problem is drug duplication. An overdose may happen by accident if one hasn’t checked the drug ingredients. For instance, a person taking both headache and cold medicine containing paracetamol receives a double dose of this medication.

Chronic conditions

Using non-prescribed drugs unnecessarily may worsen chronic conditions. A person of any age suffering from a serious illness should consult a doctor before purchasing OTC drugs. For example, people with diabetes may require help to find a cough syrup that does not contain sugar. When treating alcoholism, one cannot use drugs containing alcohol, as in some products alcohol content reaches 25%.

Since non-prescribed drugs are intended primarily for rare use by essentially healthy people, any person suffering from a chronic disease or planning to take medicine daily needs expert advice, since such use goes beyond ordinary self-help. From all of the above, it is clear that without taking many factors into account even non-prescription drugs can possibly be harmful for one’s health.


The information on drugs presented on this website is for your information only and is not considered individual advice or recommendation. Because of the changing nature of pharmaceutical product information, please consult your healthcare provider about specific clinical use. Users are recommended to make the right decisions in terms of following any of the instructions presented in the articles. But, the whole information is not a substitute for real consultation with a doctor. All the materials are posted only for general acknowledgment. One cannot use it for commercial and promotional purposes without receiving a previous consent from us. All trademarks, logos, and visual materials are protected with a copyright. Managing to retrieve them without our consent will be followed by legal proceedings.