Prescription vs. Over-the-Counter Medication: What’s the Difference? - VITAL+ Pharmacy

Ever wondered why some medicines are available to buy over-the-counter and some you need a prescription for?

Suffering with an illness that you need medication for? While some illnesses will clear up fairly quickly with over-the-counter medication, some infections require prescription medication prescribed by your doctor. But what’s the difference between the two, and how do know you which one to choose? Here’s everything you need to know.

What are over-the-counter medications?

Unlike prescription medication that requires written authorisation from an appointed health professional, over-the-counter medication (OTC) can be purchased to treat a number of specific health concerns and symptoms yourself.

Generally speaking, these types of medicines — mainly painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen, as well as cough and cold remedies, and complementary or alternative medicines — are used to treat a range of mild health conditions such as:

Some OTC medicines are available in supermarkets and retail stores, while others are only available in pharmacies. The reason being that some have a higher risk than others.

The risks associated with OTC medications fall in between complementary medicines and prescription medicines. They are considered higher risk and are subject to tighter controls than complementary medicines, but they don’t require a prescription.

OTC medicines are either 'listed' or 'registered' in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). This means that some medicines are available off the shelf for a consumer to choose themselves (listed medicines are considered lower risk), while registered medicines can only be dispensed following a consultation with a pharmacist. Registered medicines are considered higher risk, so require advice and detailed instructions from a pharmacist before you purchase.

They’re separated into three main categories —pharmacist-only medicines, pharmacy medicines and medicines for general sale — but the main point of difference is that you don’t need to visit your GP to obtain a prescription. You can simply visit your pharmacy or your supermarket and purchase the medication to treat your symptoms yourself.

The three categories of OTC medication include:

Pharmacist-only medicines
These medications require a pharmacist consultation before you purchase them. Essentially, you have to talk to your pharmacist to explain your symptoms, so they can advise you the best course of treatment. These can include inhalers (puffers) to relieve asthma and mild steroid-containing creams for skin irritations.

Pharmacy medicines
Some over-the-counter medicines are only available to purchase at pharmacies, but you don’t need to speak to a pharmacist to buy them. These include things like allergy relief and diarrhoea medications.

Medicines for general sale
Supermarkets and health food stores are also authorised to sell certain OTC medications. These include cough and cold remedies, some painkillers such as paracetamol and aspirin, and vitamins.

What are prescription medications?

Generally speaking, OTC medication is only used to treat minor ailments, where prescription drugs are usually prescribed to treat more severe illnesses. The key difference being they are much stronger than OTC drugs, and are tailored to a specific person for a specific use.

To purchase any prescription drugs, you have to obtain a prescription from a licensed medical practitioner, and they can only be used by the intended person to treat a specific medical diagnosis. Prescription medications are only distributed at licensed pharmacies, and they’re usually more expensive than OTC drugs. First you will have to visit your GP, they will write you a prescription if deemed necessary, and then you take your prescription to your pharmacy to purchase your medication.

All prescription medicines are registered medicines, which means they have been tested for efficacy by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and supported by scientific evidence that the medicine can do what it says it will, before they go on sale.

Prescription drugs include can blood pressure tablets, antibiotics, cancer medicine and strong painkillers, among others. These types of medication are classed as prescription-only based on a number of factors:

  • they are generally much stronger than OTC medicines
  • there are potential risks associated with its use
  • how the medicine is taken (eg. If it has to be injected)
  • its potential for misuse

Because of these factors, these drugs are highly regulated by the TGA and restricted for use only by the person they are prescribed to.

A doctor will only prescribe specific medication based on your individual symptoms and medical history. They will take into account any current medication that you’re taking, as well as any exisiting medical conditions. Some medications and antibiotics can cause a reaction if taken alongside other drugs or supplements, so your GP will to carry out a thorough examination before writing your prescription, taking these considerations into account.

How do I know if I need a prescription or OTC medication?

You can usually judge the symptoms yourself. For headaches, colds, muscle pain, skin rash/irritation and allergies for example, you can visit your pharmacy or supermarket to buy painkillers, muscle relaxants, topical skin creams or cough and cold remedies etc. However, if your symptoms are more serious, or won’t clear up after you’ve taken OTC drugs, you should visit your GP for a more thorough diagnosis. They will then write you a prescription, if necessary, to help clear up the infection or illness.

Loved our advice on prescription and over-the-counter medication? We've got lots more health advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Can supplements really boost your immune system? These are the 15 men's health symptoms you should never ignore.


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