Friday, July 23, 2021

Prescription Drugs and Over-The-Counter Drugs: Do You Know the Difference?

by | September 29, 2020 0

Drugs are chemical substances which by interacting with the biological systems produce some changes in them. There are a variety of drugs available for use in the diagnosis, cure, treatment, or prevention of disease. These drugs fall into two broad categories:

a. prescription drugs and

b. over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

Prescription drugs

Prescription (prescription medications or legend drugs) are drugs that are accessible only by prescription from a licensed practitioner. Although these drugs have been tested for safety and therapeutic effect, they may cause different reactions in some individuals.

Drugs that fall under this classification are:

i. Those given by injection

ii. Hypnotic or soporific drugs (commonly known as sleeping pills)

iii. Narcotics (drugs that have analgesic and sedative effect)

iv. Habit-forming drugs

v. Drugs that are unsafe unless administered under the supervision of a licensed practitioner

vi. New drugs that are still being investigated and not considered safe for indiscriminate use by the public

Read Also: Understanding Pharmaceutical Dosage Forms

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

Over-the-counter drugs are called non-prescription drugs and are available to the public without a prescription. Most of them are for self-limiting conditions and appropriate labels for use are usually provided. Some over-the-counter drugs were at one time available by prescription but later were considered safe for use by the public or reformulated for over-the-counter use. Some drugs can be sold in lower doses over-the-counter while higher doses of the same drug require a prescription as per Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements.

Some examples of over-the-counter drugs include:

i. Pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.

ii. Cough medications like dextromethorphan (Triaminic Cold and Cough, Vicks 44 Cough and Cold, etc), guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin Chest Congestion)

iii. Antihistamines like Chlorphenamine (Piriton), loratadine (Claritin 24H), cetirizine (Zyrtec), etc.

iv. Decongestants e.g., pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), Oxymetazoline (Afrin), etc.

Key differences between prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs

Here are the key differences between and prescription drugs and OTC drugs.

Prescription drugs Over-the-Counter drugs
Prescribed by a licensed practitioner Does NOT require a prescription from a licensed practitioner to be dispensed.
Bought at a pharmacy Bought off-the-shelf in at drug stores or groceries
Prescribed for and intended to be used by one person Considered safe for just about everyone and may have a variety of intended purposes
Regulated by FDA through the New Drug Application (NDA) process Regulated by FDA through OTC Drug monographs


  • Aguwa, C. and Akah, P. (2006). How Drugs Act. In C. Aguwa and J. Ogbuokiri (Eds.), A Handbook of Pharmacology for Nursing and Allied Health Professions (pp. 2-7). Nigeria: Africana First Publishers Limited.

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