OTC Isn’t Always Cheaper: When It Pays to Get a Prescription

Roni Shye
Roni Shye, PharmD BCGP BCACP, is a licensed pharmacist in the states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
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Over the past several years many medications that once required a prescription can now easily be obtained in the aisles of your pharmacy or grocery store. You may be familiar with allergy meds like Claritin, Zyrtec, and Allegra, or heartburn drugs like Prilosec, Prevacid, and Nexium. All are now available exclusively over-the-counter, or have both OTC and prescription versions.

This is great for you in many ways. It’s easier to walk over to the shelf and pick up what you need, and you don’t need to visit your doctor for every minor illness. A prescription medication needs FDA approval to make the jump to OTC status, and must meet certain requirements, so you can know you are still getting a safe, effective treatment:

On the other hand, you could also be paying—literally—for the convenience. Many people hand over the money and don’t think twice because of the luxury of having easy access to these medications.

What’s there to think about? You may not know that you can often get the same medication with a prescription for less. This is especially true for the new drugs making their over-the-counter debut, like allergy nasal sprays Flonase Allergy Relief and Nasacort Allergy 24HR.

These lower prices do come with the inconvenience (and potential cost) of requiring a prescription from your doctor. The savings will also depend on the type of prescription insurance you have, your co-pay, and what your plan will cover.

It can still pay to do the research though. For example, many insurance companies will pay for omeprazole 20 mg capsules—the generic capsule version of Prilosec OTC tablets. The OTC version can cost $10 for only 14 tablets, while you could get a full month supply of the prescription generic for that amount (or less) with insurance or a GoodRx discount.

A newer example is Flonase Allergy Relief, which can cost upwards of $20 per bottle without a prescription. In contrast, the generic prescription version (fluticasone propionate) is $10 – $15 at most pharmacies with GoodRx, and on most insurance plans.

The takeaway? Before choosing convenience over cost, take some time to speak with your pharmacist about potential savings.

Watch for more information on OTC medications and how to save in future posts.

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