Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-Counter Medications

Fact or Myth: 

“Over-the-counter medications must always be safe because they’re available without a prescription”

That’s a myth!

While over-the-counter medications are safe for most people when used correctly, they are not free of risk. Your pharmacist is an important resource who can offer you personalized assessment and help you select the right product at the pharmacy.

To learn more about using over-the-counter medications safely, read on!

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided below is not intended to replace a consultation with your pharmacist or physician. If you have questions about your medication(s) or are experiencing a health concern, please talk to your pharmacist.

What are Over-the-Counter Medications?

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are medications that can be sold directly to a client without a prescription.

OTC medications are used to self-treat a wide variety of minor health conditions, like seasonal allergies, cold symptoms, mild pain, constipation, and acne. Because these conditions are typically mild and simple in nature, treatments are available without assessment by a care provider.

Most OTC medications are available at the front of the pharmacy, where people can access them independently. However, some OTC products are kept behind the counter, so the pharmacist can make sure that they are used appropriately—even if a prescription isn’t needed to buy them. Some common OTC drugs, like pain and heartburn medications, may also be sold outside of a pharmacy altogether; these non-pharmacy retailers include locations like gas stations and supermarkets.

As the medication experts, pharmacists receive specialized training about safe and effective medication use, which includes both prescription and non-prescription drugs.

Using Over-the-Counter Medications Safely

Even though OTC medications are available without a prescription, it is important that you use them appropriately. If you are ever unsure about an OTC product or how to use it, speak to your pharmacist.

When selecting and using OTC products, it’s also important to remember the following:

Read and Follow the Directions on the Medication Packaging

Unless instructed by a pharmacist or other health care provider to do differently, follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully. Be sure to note the size of each medicine dose and how often it can be used. 

The product packaging also includes other valuable information:

Know Which Medications are in Combination Products

Sometimes, OTC products contain multiple medicinal ingredients so that they can be more effective or treat different symptoms at the same time. Such combination products are often used to treat cough, cold, and flu symptoms. When selecting a product, try to chose one with fewer medicinal ingredients that treat your specific symptoms. If you are unsure of what a medication does or which medicinal ingredients you need, ask your pharmacist for help. 

Avoid Taking Too Much of the Same Medicinal Ingredient

If someone uses multiple different products with the same or similar medicinal ingredients, they can take too much and be harmed—even if they take the correct dose listed on each package. This can happen if you combine OTC products or add them to your existing prescription drug therapy. For example, ibuprofen and related pain medicines are found in many OTC solo and combination products, but they are also used as prescription medications.

Before combining any OTC products or adding an OTC medication to your existing drug therapy, make sure that you know what you are taking. Also ensure that you are not duplicating any of the medicines. If you are ever unsure, ask your pharmacist for help.

Ask Your Pharmacist About Drug Interactions

Drug interactions occur when a medication reacts with another substance or condition in the body, making it act differently and potentially cause harm. There are three main types of drug interactions:

OTC drugs can have serious interactions with medical conditions and other medications—both OTC and prescription. Medications can also interact with herbal products and nutritional supplements. It’s important to tell your pharmacist all of the different prescription and non-prescription products you use for your health.

Before using a new OTC medication, check the packaging for any interactions that may affect you. If you have an existing medical condition or take other medications on a regular basis, ask your pharmacist before you start a new OTC medication so that they can check for interactions.

Ensure the Quality of Medications Before Using Them

To make sure that your OTC medications are safe and effective, avoid using products that:

Remember to take unused, expired, and damaged medications back to a pharmacy for safe disposal—regardless of if they are prescription or OTC medicines. Visit our webpages to learn more about proper medication storage and safe medication disposal.

Follow Dosing Instructions for Children’s OTC Medications Closely

When giving medications to a child, be sure to follow the exact dosing instructions on the OTC package. 

When measuring liquid medicines, always use the measuring cup or syringe that comes in the package. If no measuring device is included, or if it becomes damaged or lost, ask the pharmacy team for a new one. Never measure medicines using a household dining spoon or a measuring spoon intended for baking.

Give medications based on the package instructions using the child’s weight or age. Do not give adult OTC medications to children unless they reach the age minimum listed on the package. Never approximate a child’s dose by cutting tablets intended for adults or adjusting the listed adult dose without speaking to a pharmacist first. 

If you are ever unsure about using an OTC product for a child or the appropriate dose, ask the pharmacist for help. Visit our webpage about tips for caregivers to learn more about safe medication use for children.

Resources to Learn More

Interested in learning more? Explore the resources included here!

Get Relief Responsibly

Understand Your OTC Medicine Labels


Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions