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Understanding Types of Medicine

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There are three broad categories of medicines — over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, prescription medicines, and complementary medicines. Believe it or not, there are now 10,000 prescription drugs and 300,000 over-the-counter medicines on the market, and that number continues to grow.

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

Over-the-counter drugs are medicines you can buy at pharmacies, convenience and grocery stores without a prescription from your health care provider. These include aspirin and other pain relievers, antacids, laxatives, allergy, and cough and cold medicines.

Many OTC medicines treat multiple symptoms. Antihistamines, for example, are active ingredients (or medicines) in many OTCs that treat allergy and cold symptoms including sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes.

Because 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 symptoms you or your loved one has. Just as you would follow your doctor’s advice when taking a prescription medicine, you need to know the facts about how to take OTC medicines safely.

Carefully read the “Drug Facts” label and talk with your pharmacist if you have any doubts about which OTC will best care for your family’s ailments. Keep in mind, OTCs are meant to treat minor health problems, so if the symptoms you are treating do not improve in a few days, you should call your doctor.

What about your daily multivitamin? Although vitamins, herbals, and other dietary supplements come in similar packaging and many are shaped just like pills, they are not considered OTCs. The Food and Drug Administration categorizes these products as food, so they do not have to follow the same strict rules that prescription drugs have to follow by law. Make sure to tell your health care providers if you use any. Mixing certain supplements or herbals with food or other medicines can be dangerous.

Prescription medicines

Prescription medicines can help clear an ear or sinus infection, lower elevated blood pressure, or treat or manage a wide range of chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. These medicines require a prescription from a doctor or other health care professional licensed to prescribe medicines, and should be taken exactly as directed and only by the family member for whom they are prescribed.

Carefully read the instructions that accompany every prescription medicine and ask your health care provider any questions before you begin taking the medicine.

Complementary medicines

Complementary medicines (also known as 'traditional' or 'alternative' medicines) include vitamin, mineral, herbal, aromatherapy, and homoeopathic products. Like OTC products, these products are available without a prescription.

What is your medicine called?

All medicines have two names:

A generic name

Each medicine has an approved name called the generic name. This name does not change. A group of medicines that work in a similar way often have similar sounding generic names. For example, penicillin, ampicillin, amoxycillin, and flucloxacillin are the generic names for a group of antibiotics.

A brand name

Many medicines also have one or more brand names. This name is chosen by the company that makes it. Several companies may make the same medicine, each with their own brand name. A product from the same company may also be called by different brand names in different countries.

The brand name is usually written most clearly on any packaging. However, you will always see the generic name written somewhere on the packet. Some products contain a combination of medicines. Combination products usually have one brand name. However, the individual ingredients will all be listed on the packet.