Post # 2- Over the Counter (OTC) Medications

What exactly does OTC mean?

Over the counter medications, more commonly referred to as OTC medications, are medications that do not require a prescription from a medical provider to obtain. The specifics of which medications require prescriptions vary depending on country, and in some instances by state government for specific medications. In the United States the task of determining which medications require a prescription falls under the auspices of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). One particular exception to that has to do with the sales of pseudoephedrine which has been implicated in methamphetamine production, and as a consequence in some states has additional regulations to it’s sale over the counter.

Drug Facts Labeling

In general OTC medications can be bought freely by the consumer without prescription or even consulting with a medical provider. Over the years the FDA has taken steps to aid the consumer in knowing the actual ingredients and how to use various medications. Probably one of the most useful to the consumer, was the mandate creating the drug facts label. This is now a standardized format in the U.S. and has all the important information a consumer would need on one label. While much of this information has been on drug use labels over the years, the latest OTC label requirements go through great effort to make it all concise, easy to read and most importantly, easy to understand. This does of course rely on you the consumer actually picking it up and reading it. Not only is it in the best interest of you or your loved ones health to do so but it can also make more efficient use of how you use these medications and actually save you money in the process.

Why are we talking about the Drug Facts label so much?

An integral part of your first aid kit are the OTC medications that it contains. Many of the things people present to urgent care settings are often treated in some part by OTC medications. By familiarizing yourself with these labels you may be able to save yourself a trip and/or a copay with medications you already stock at home. More importantly if you find yourself in a situation where a trip to your medical provider isn’t possible or practical it’s good to know what you have, how it can help and what it’s limitations are. It is also important to actually heed the warnings on these labels which may advise you to seek care if there is lack of improvement over a given period of time or signs or symptoms that may be more important than you think, thus necessitating further medical evaluation.

The Drug Facts label also allows you to use your medication more efficiently. There are many OTC medications that have multiple active ingredients, in other words multiple drugs. While these can be helpful they can also be harmful or misleading. These “drug cocktails” are common in cold and flu relief medications. An example of this is where one product gives you a medicine to relieve a fever (anti-pyretic), deal with aches and pains (analgesic), help with congestion (decongestant), and help with a cough (cough suppressant). that’s great you think it may be, but what about if you only have a cough and you don’t want the side effects of that particular decongestant that’s going to keep you awake all night. It pays to to know the difference so you can use your medications to treat what you want and not feel out of it due to all the extra medications in that product you didn’t need in the first place.

What’s the big difference between generic and trade name medication?

The most basic way to explain the difference between generic and non-generic medications is that both classes of a given medication must contain the same active ingredients. The FDA regulates both classes to the same standards and mandates that a generic form of a medication not only contain the same active ingredients, but must also be the same concentration of the medication as well as be in the same dosage form i.e. pill versus spray. The medication must also have similar rates of absorption meaning if it is immediate or extended release, the generic must perform similarly to the trade name medication. The inactive ingredients can vary between the generic and trade name medication so if specific allergies are a concern it would make sense to review those ingredients closely. Generic medications may be different colors or shapes than the trade name medication due to different inactive ingredients.

It’s important to remember that trade name medications and their generic equivalents can either be prescription or OTC. In either case generic medicines are far less expensive and as a consequence, used frequently. According to the FDA, almost 80% of drug sales in the US are for generic medications. The reason trade name medications tend to be so much more expensive is that pharmaceutical companies have often spent decades in research and development, as well as clinical trials before they can receive FDA approval to bring a new drug to the marketplace and have to recoup their losses before they can start to make a profit. For this reason the government will award the pharmaceutical company a limited time patent during which time other companies are not allowed to produce generic equivalents of the medication. These patent lengths can vary, and once they expire a generic equivalent on the marketplace is fair game.
OTC medications have either been around for decades or were previously prescription medications. Interestingly, even medications that have been around for over a century in pill form such as aspirin still have trade name and generic versions. For the purposes of building a thorough medical kit you should review your options, but it is this author’s opinion that generic medications are more than suitable and far more cost effective.

Great, so OTC medications are very safe since I don’t need a prescription right?

If only it were that simple…For the most part OTC medications are safe to use if you use them as directed, however your individual medical history and other drugs and/or supplements you take must be considered. Certain OTC medications may not be safe depending on your specific medical problems, possible allergies and in particular, what other medications you’re on especially if you are on prescription medications. The possibilities of adverse reactions counting on all of these variables would be too numerous to outline in specific fashion which is why close attention must be given to the drug facts. It is also advisable to discuss medications you may be considering with your doctor and/or your pharmacist to ensure it is still safe for you to use.

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