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What are the Differences Between Prescription and Non-Prescription Medications?

Lainie Petersen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Non-prescription medication, sometimes known as over-the-counter medication, differs from prescription medication in that it can be legally purchased and consumed without first obtaining a prescription from a health care professional. Medications that are available without a doctor's prescription are generally considered by the medical profession to be fairly benign. While they may be effective at treating certain symptoms and conditions, there is a low risk of severe side effects or overdose attached to non-prescription drugs. The types of drugs that are available without prescription can vary by jurisdiction, and legal restrictions on the purchase of these remedies may still be in place.

Many pharmaceutical companies produce non-prescription drugs that can treat common conditions and are available at retail outlets for purchase by anyone who has the money to afford them. In some cases, over-the-counter and prescription drugs may have similar mechanisms,and treat conditions in much the same way, but the prescription medication is offered at a higher potency or may have demonstrated a greater risk to users during its clinical trials. The drugs that pose a greater risk to the health and well-being of individual users as well as the general public are restricted by law to those who meet accepted medical standards for such treatment.

The availability of nonprescription drugs varies from place to place. For example, decongestants and cold medications containing pseudoephedrine are often subject to different restrictions in different states. Pseudoephedrine can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, so many states restrict its purchase to people more than age 18, require that those who do buy the drug in non-prescription form provide retailers with photo identification, and may limit the quantities in which it can be purchased. Some states simply require individuals to obtain a doctor's prescription before buying medications containing pseudoephedrine.

The cost of prescription medication versus over-the-counter medication varies. For those who have medical insurance with a prescription drug plan, the cost of prescription drugs may not be significant, as their insurance covers the cost of their prescriptions. Non-prescription drugs can vary in cost and are typically not covered by insurance. The purchase of natural and homeopathic medication by consumers is typically not restricted by prescription laws, and consumers are generally free to purchase them as they wish. As with non-prescription drugs, the cost of herbal and homeopathic remedies is typically not borne by health insurance plans, which can make them less cost-effective than prescription drugs for insured consumers.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Lainie Petersen
By Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen, a talented writer, copywriter, and content creator, brings her diverse skill set to her role as an editor. With a unique educational background, she crafts engaging content and hosts podcasts and radio shows, showcasing her versatility as a media and communication professional. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any media organization.
Discussion Comments
By anon305518 — On Nov 26, 2012

Makes us sound lucky in the UK with the NHS, getting all free health services.

By browncoat — On Mar 07, 2012

@croydon - Actually I try to do that with most medication. The only thing I buy non-prescription is the occasional box of ibuprofen.

Anything your doctor prescribes you will be stronger than what you can get over the counter, and you'll also be safe from the difficulties that come if you prescribe yourself something, as you can always point out that the doctor was the one who said to do it.

I know this isn't for everyone though, as it takes time and money but I feel like it's the best way to do things. People take medicine too much for granted. It's far more dangerous than most people think.

By croydon — On Mar 06, 2012

@indigomoth - A good example of that is hayfever medication, unfortunately.

I say unfortunately, because that's the kind of medicine that a lot of people need to be able to take every day in order to reduce their symptoms. I don't get hayfever exactly, but I am allergic to dust, so if I'm staying in a house where there hasn't been enough measures taken to reduce my allergies, I'll be miserable without anti-allergy medication.

But it can cost 10 to 20 dollars per week! Or even more for the fancier brands.

If I had to buy it every week for all of spring, I'd go broke.

Luckily, there is a solution, although it can also be expensive. Go to a doctor for a short visit, complain about your symptoms, they will tell you you have allergies and hopefully, will prescribe you anti-allergy medication.

Not only will this be stronger than the average over the counter medication you get at the pharmacy, it will also be much cheaper.

By indigomoth — On Mar 06, 2012

One thing to bear in mind, is that often over the counter medications which are perfectly safe in their commercial form, can be bought up and concentrated or otherwise manipulated into recreational drugs.

So, often these medicines are much more expensive than they need to be, simply to stop them from being used for that purpose, since in theory if the components cost more than the drug is worth, there's no point in making it.

Of course, in reality, many people are willing to pay whatever it takes in order to get the drug, and the makers can often get their ingredients overseas anyway, so it doesn't always help, at least with larger operations.

But, that's why sometimes it seems crazy how expensive certain medications are, and even why sometimes they will ask you to do certain things as extra security measures when you buy them.

Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen, a talented writer, copywriter, and content creator, brings her diverse skill set to her role as an...
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