What are over-the-counter drugs?

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aspirin bottle and tablets
Aspirin is one of the most common over-the-counter drugs.
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Over-the-counter drugs: What they are and where you get them

You may have wondered what are over-the-counter drugs, and terminology can be confusing. At most pharmacies, they hand your prescription medicine to you over the counter. But over-the-counter drugs are actually nonprescription drugs.

Definition of Over-the-Counter Drugs

Technically over-the-counter drugs, also called OTC medicines, are ones which can be sold legally without a prescription. In theory, someone could sell controlled substances to another person who doesn't have a prescription. This sale wouldn't make the substance into an over-the-counter drug; it would just be an illegal sale of a prescription drug.

Although you don't need a prescription to buy over-the-counter drugs, the FDA does oversee them. (Note, however, that the agency does not regulate herbs and certain supplements, although other bodies do so.) 

How does the FDA decide what are over-the-counter drugs? With nonprescription products, the benefits of using the substance outweigh the risks, and health professionals aren't needed for the safe use of the substance. This second requirement therefore requires users to be able to diagnose themselves and administer the correct amount of medication.


Examples of Over-the-Counter Drugs

The FDA currently counts over eighty categories when they define what are over-the-counter drugs. However, a few common products are listed below.

  • Acetominophen (Tylenol)
  • Antacids
  • Aspirin
  • Cough syrup
  • Eye drops
  • Hydrocortisone (itch) cream
  • Ibuprofen
  • Nicotine patches

Also, people sometimes think differently about exactly what are over-the-counter drugs, because they define drugs differently. Some think of drugs as any substances, other than food, that affect your body's function in some way. These folks might list caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine if asked what are over-the-counter drugs. Others think of drugs only as substances usually intended for dealing with sickness and disease.

Where to Buy Over-the-Counter Drugs

You can buy over-the-counter drugs at all kinds of places, including gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, discount warehouses, and even online health and beauty suppliers.

Over-the-Counter Drugs or Prescription Medicines?

When the government decides what substances need to be controlled by prescription, it considers several factors. It also considers these same factors when a prescription drug is proposed to switch to an over-the-counter status. Prescription drugs do sometimes make this switch after a number of years on the market. Take ibuprofen and Claritin as examples.

In determining what are over-the-counter drugs and what are prescription medicines, the government evaluates the potential for and history of abuse, scientific evidence regarding the drug's properties and reactions, possible risks to public health, the probability of dependence on the drug, and the likelihood of the drug's use leading to abuse of other controlled substances.



U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Regulation of Nonprescription Products"

U.S. Drug Enforcement and Administration, "21 USC Part B--Authority To Control; Standards and Schedules 01/22/02"

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