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Medication and pharmacy

Medicines fall into three different categories: general sale or over-the-counter, pharmacy only and prescription only. Sometimes these categories change over time, or a medicine may change status after decisions by UK medicines regulators.


Common treatments for minor complaints which are not serious enough to seek the advice of a GP or pharmacist are known as over-the-counter or being on the 'general sales list'.

These include painkillers, such as paracetamol or aspirin, cold remedies and constipation relief products.

They can be bought over-the-counter in shops where there is not a pharmacist present.

Just because these medicines are widely available doesn’t generally mean they are less strong than prescribed treatments, and there's still a possible danger of overdose or side effects. Make sure you read the label and package insert to understand the right dose and any possible interactions with other treatments.

Pharmacy medicine

These are medicines which don't need a prescription and can be bought from a pharmacy under the supervision of a pharmacist. They are not out on the main shop shelves, but kept behind the counter to ensure they are only sold by a pharmacist or another member who will have checked they are appropriate for the condition and age of the person.

Pharmacy medicines include eye drops and nasal sprays for allergies and emergency contraception.

Prescription-only medicines

These medicines can only be prescribed by a doctor, dentist or other qualified health professional. Appropriately trained physiotherapists and podiatrists can prescribe medications such as pain relief for their patients.

The prescription is either taken to the pharmacy, or for repeat prescriptions, some GP surgeries have arrangements to have them collected by the pharmacy.

Examples of prescription-only medicines include antibiotics and blood pressure medications.

Branded and generic medicines

Sometimes medicines can have two names - a brand name and a generic name.

Brand named medicines tend to be prescribed when they are newer and only made by one company which has researched and developed it. After a period of time, patents on medicines run out, and other manufacturers can then make the same medicine to the same formula. At that stage, other companies can also sell them by the generic name, and then typically there's a drop in price.

Natural or herbal products

Just because a product is sold as 'natural' or herbal doesn’t mean it won’t have strong effects or interfere with other treatments being taken.

People have been taking herbal remedies for centuries, but since May 2011 herbal remedies come under special regulations.

Herbal products such as St John’s wort, echinacea and black cohosh need to be registered with the medicines regulator MHRA and can only be sold for the conditions for which they are registered.

Always let a doctor know if you are planning to take supplements or herbal remedies.

WebMD Medical Reference

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