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OTC Medicines, Vitamins, and Supplements

What’s the difference?

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy without a prescription. They are available at retail grocery, convenience, drug, and mass merchandisers. There are more than 300,000 OTC medicines, providing a range of accessible and affordable treatments. It is important to recognize, however, that even though you don’t need a healthcare provider’s prescription for OTCs, these are still medicines that need to be taken responsibly. OTCs are meant to treat minor health problems that can be managed at home, so if the symptoms you are treating do not improve in a few days, you should call your healthcare provider.

What about your daily multivitamin? Or the fish oil capsules or probiotics you take? Although vitamins, herbals and other dietary supplements come in similar packaging and many are shaped just like pills or capsules, they are not considered OTC medicines. Just like medicines, however, dietary supplements and herbal remedies can offer both benefit and potential risk. They also can cause side effects or interact with the other medicines that you take. Be sure to tell your healthcare providers about all of the dietary supplements and herbal remedies that you take. When asking yourself “what vitamins should I take?” Or “what dietary supplement should I take,” remember that the same responsibility and caution applied to decisions for taking OTC and Rx medicines should be applied when making choices about vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal remedies

Follow the “3 Rs” of using OTC medicines correctly

Selecting the right OTC: match the medicine to your symptoms

Some OTCs contain a single active ingredient (i.e., common pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen), others include a combination of active ingredients (i.e., cold medicines, which often contain multiple ingredients to treat multiple symptoms such as aches, runny nose and cough).

When you’re deciding on the best option and there are so many OTC products to choose from, it’s important to choose one that treats only the specific symptoms you have. For example, if you have a cough, you might not need the combination of multiple medicines that are in a cold medicine.

Selecting the right OTC: brand name vs. store brand

Some OTCs are sold by brand name (i.e., Tylenol®, Advil®, Pepto-Bismol®) and others by generic name (acetaminophen, ibuprofen or bismuth subsalicylate, respectively). Often, popular branded OTCs have an associated “store brand” product, for example Walmart or Target or RiteAid-branded OTC medicines. These “store brand” OTC products are equivalent in their efficacy and safety to the brand name product. While usually priced lower, these generic or store brand OTC medicines have the same purpose, strength, safety, and other characteristics of brand name drugs and meet the same quality standards.