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Over the counter medicine

Over the counter medicine
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Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines

3-minute read

Key facts

  • You can buy OTC medicines without a prescription.
  • There are OTC medicines you can only buy in pharmacies, but you can buy other medicines in general shops, such as supermarkets and health food stores.
  • Speak to a pharmacist for healthcare advice before buying OTC medicines.
  • You might experience side effects from OTC medicines and they can interact with your prescription or other medicines.

What are over-the-counter (OTC) medicines?

You don't need a prescription for some medicines. These are called over-the-counter medicines, or OTC medicines.

You can buy pain medicines, for example, paracetamol and ibuprofen, as well as cough and cold remedies, over the counter. You can also buy complementary or alternative medicines over the counter.

Like all medicines, you should think about the risks and benefits of OTC medicines before using them.

Types of over-the-counter medicines

In Australia, over-the-counter medicines can be supplied in three ways.

Pharmacist-only medicines

There are some over-the-counter medicines you can only buy after you have spoken to the pharmacist. Examples include inhalers (puffers) for asthma and mild steroid-containing creams for skin irritations. Your pharmacist is a qualified expert in medicines and can help you and your family with advice on health and medicines.

Pharmacy medicines

There are other over-the-counter medicines that you can only buy in pharmacies, but you do not need to speak to a pharmacist to buy them. Examples include medicines to treat diarrhoea and symptoms of allergy.

Medicines for general sale

You can buy some over-the-counter medicines in supermarkets and health food stores. Examples include cough and cold remedies, some pain medicines such as paracetamol, and vitamins.

What are the risks of taking over-the-counter medicines?

Over-the-counter medicines have side effects as well as benefits, just like any other medicine. For example, there are some over-the-counter pain medicines you shouldn't use if you have stomach, kidney, liver or heart problems, or are pregnant.

Some over-the-counter medicines and alternative medicines can interact with other prescribed medicines, making them less effective for you. Combining medicines, including OTC medicines, may increase your chance of experiencing side effects.

Always let your doctor or pharmacist know what prescription, over-the-counter and alternative or complementary medicines you are taking.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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