About Medicines

The different types of medicine, the difference between branded drugs and generics, and how the medicines become available.

Medicines which you can buy without prescription

Some medicines for minor illnesses can be bought over the counter without a prescription, so you can treat yourself without needing to see a doctor.

Simple painkillers and cough remedies, for example, can be bought directly from supermarkets and other stores.

Other types of medicine, such as eye drops or emergency contraception, are available without a prescription but need a pharmacist's supervision, so are only available to buy from behind the pharmacy counter.

Prescription-only medicines, such as antibiotics, must be prescribed by a qualified health professional.

This may be a hospital doctor, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, optometrist, physiotherapist or podiatrist.

Buying medicines online

You can also buy medicines over the internet. But be very careful if you do this, as many websites sell not real medicines.

Online medicines aren't regulated and ingredients in them can vary. They may cause unpleasant side effects or may not be suitable for you.

It's best to see your doctor before buying medicines online as they know your medical history and can advise you whether the medicine would be suitable.

If you choose to buy medicines online, ensure that:

  • online pharmacy is registered
  • online doctor service is registered

Brand and generic medicines

Many medicines have at least two different names:

  • the brand name - created by the pharmaceutical company that made the medicine
  • the generic name - the name of the active ingredient in the medicine

For example, sildenafil is the generic name of a medicine used to treat erectile dysfunction. But the company that makes sildenafil, sells it under the brand name Viagra.

Companies take out exclusive rights called patents on each new drug they discover. If a company has a patent on a drug, only that company can market it under their brand name once it's been granted a licence.

Once the patent expires, other manufacturers can market generic versions. The generic versions will be the same as the branded medicine because they contain the same active ingredients.

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