What is an over-the-counter (OTC) drug?

An over-the-counter, or OTC, drug is a medication that can be sold directly to a consumer without a prescription from a health care professional. An OTC drug is usually regulated by its active pharmaceutical ingredients. Over-the-counter drugs made by different manufacturers to treat the same condition must have the same active pharmaceutical ingredients, but may differ in formulations or combinations of other ingredients.

Some over-the-counter drugs still require patients to visit a pharmacy and consult with a pharmacist or fill out paperwork to acquire the drug. However, many OTC drugs are available in stores, supermarkets, gas stations or other retailers without a pharmacy or pharmacist.

Over time, some drugs that prove themselves safe and appropriate as prescription medicines may be switched from prescription to OTC.

What is the danger with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs?

All drugs carry some risk of adverse side effects. These may include abnormal heart rhythm, liver or kidney failure, uncontrolled bleeding, stroke and even death. Patients taking over-the-counter medications also need to be cautious about how these medications may interact with any prescription medications they are currently taking, or how multiple over-the-counter medications may interact with each other when taken simultaneously. Additionally, patients taking over-the-counter medications need to be careful about understanding dosing instructions.

Patients should talk to their pharmacist or physician about possible drug interactions or ask if they have questions about dosing to avoid giving too much or too little medication.

What can I do?

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