What’s the difference?
Over-the-counter or OTC medicines, vitamins and dietary supplements do not require a prescription. You can purchase them at grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies and mass merchandisers. All are for treating minor health problems that can be managed at home. They all offer both benefits and have potential risks. Also, they can all cause side effects or interact with other medicines you take. This is why you should tell your healthcare provider about all of the vitamins, dietary supplements, herbal remedies and OTCs you take. Even though you don’t need a prescription, they should still be taken responsibly. Of course, if symptoms don’t improve – or you experience adverse side effects – you should call your healthcare provider.
An important distinction between vitamins, supplements and herbals is that they don’t undergo the same testing as OTCs. Although they come in similar packaging and may be shaped just like pills, they are not considered OTC medicines. Keep this in mind when taking your daily multivitamin, fish oil capsule or probiotic.
A note about homeopathy: There are no FDA-approved products labeled as homeopathic; this means any product labeled as homeopathic is being marketed in the U.S. without FDA evaluation for safety or effectiveness.
Selecting the right OTCs:
Match the medicines to your symptoms
There are more than 80 classes of OTC medicines that provide a range of accessible and affordable treatments. Some OTCs contain a single active ingredient. A good example of this is common pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Others may include a combination of active ingredients. Cold medicines, for instance, often contain multiple ingredients to treat multiple symptoms such as aches, runny nose and cough. Choose the one that treats only the specific symptoms you have. If you have a cough, you might not need the combination of multiple medicines that are in a cold medicine.
Brand name vs. store brand
Some OTCs are sold by brand name (Tylenol®, Advil®). Others have generic names (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, respectively). Often, popular branded OTCs have an associated “store brand” product. For example, RiteAid-branded OTC medicines. “Store brand” OTCs 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. They also meet the same quality standards.