5 Things You Need to Know About OTC Medications

Roni Shye
Roni Shye, PharmD BCGP BCACP, is a licensed pharmacist in the states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
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Like prescription drugs, there are an enormous variety of over-the-counter (OTC) medications available to treat all kinds of conditions. OTC medications range from vitamin and mineral supplements to emergency contraception and include everything in between.

Also just like prescription drugs, OTC medications can be misused, abused, and even interfere with one another.

Although OTC medications don’t require a consult with your healthcare provider before use, it’s still important to understand what you are taking. If you have any questions, be sure to check with with your doctor or pharmacist.

So what are the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to OTC meds?

1.  OTC medications can interact with your prescriptions.

When asked by your healthcare provider, it is important to provide an accurate and complete list of all the medications you take—including all over-the-counter medications, even vitamins, minerals, herbals, aspirin, or any other product you may be taking.

Having an accurate and up-to-date medication list (including OTC products) can be a valuable tool in many circumstances. For example, when it comes to determining whether your medications may be interfering with one another, finding the cause if you are experiencing unwanted side effects, or if you need to be admitted to the hospital.

Always keep a complete list of ALL medications and disclose this information to your various healthcare providers. If you are interested in compiling a list of your current medications you can use this template from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

2.  OTC vitamins and minerals may not undergo the same testing as prescription medications.

OTC vitamins and minerals, unlike prescription drugs, do not usually have clinical trials conducted to determine their safety or efficacy. This lack of clinical data can sometimes lead to unforeseen situations such as drug interactions or dose inconsistencies.

For more information on herbs, supplements, and vitamins check out this database from the Mayo Clinic.

3.  A lot of the medications now available over-the-counter were once prescription only.

You may have noticed that several medications now in your grocery store or pharmacy’s aisles used to require a prescription.

It is important to keep in mind that before the status of these medications can be changed from prescription-only to over-the-counter, the FDA requires that they are evaluated for both safety and efficacy.

Several medications have made the jump from prescription only to an over-the-counter or OTC status. The past several months have been a particularly busy time for prescription-to-OTC switches, with heartburn med Nexium and steroid nasal spray Flonase as the most recent examples. Some more medications that used to require a prescription from the doctor but can now be puchased over-the counter include:

4.  You can still use your FSA and HSA on OTC products.

If your employer offers either a flexible spending account (FSA) or a healthcare spending account (HSA), you are eligible to use those pre-tax dollars on various healthcare-related items such as OTC medications.

However, there is a catch—in order to use your FSA or HSA on OTC meds you must have a prescription from your doctor. You will need to buy your OTC med at the counter of the pharmacy of your choice, just like a prescription medication.

A few years back you used to be able to grab the item right off of the shelf and check out using your FSA or HSA debit card, but this changed at the end of 2010.

For more information on FSAs or HSAs check out this article from health insurance company Cigna.

5.  There are many variations of the same product available over-the-counter.

Exploring the aisles of OTC medications can make your head spin with the amount of choices that exist these days. Many medications are available in a variety of strengths, dosage forms, and combinations, which can lead to confusion if you aren’t exactly sure what you are looking for.

If you’re looking for a calcium plus vitamin D supplement, for example, it sounds like a simple trip to the vitamin aisle. However, once you get there, you’ll find many varieties, strengths, and dosage forms for this one vitamin combination alone.

Consider the following:

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