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Difference Between Behind the Counter, Off the Shelf, and Prescription Drugs

  • Published: 2017-05-15 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-26) : Disabled World (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Article explains the pharmacy difference between availability of prescription drugs, behind the counter, and over the counter medications.

Main Document

List of differences between purchasing prescription drugs, behind the counter, and over the counter medications.

Over the Counter Drugs

Over the counter drugs (OTC), also known as off the shelf medication, are drugs that do NOT require a doctor's prescription and can be bought off-the-shelf in a pharmacy, and in stores such as supermarkets or small convenience stores. In many countries, OTC drugs are selected by a regulatory agency to ensure that they are ingredients that are safe and effective when used without a physician's care. As a general rule, over-the-counter drugs have to be used primarily to treat a condition that does not require the direct supervision of a doctor and must be proven to be reasonably safe and well tolerated. In the United States some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines are being moved behind the counter at pharmacies as part of the fight against illegal drug production.

Examples of Over the Counter Drugs:

Acetaminophen (Tylenol); Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin); Decongestants, Aspirin.

Behind the Counter Medication

What are behind the counter drugs? Doesn't that just mean prescription medication? Similar to over-the-counter status, behind the counter (BTC) allows patients to access certain medication at a pharmacy without seeing a doctor. Unlike OTC, access is not allowed without the intervention of a learned intermediary, and unlike prescription medication, behind the Counter meds allows a patient to access drugs after an assessment and decision by a pharmacist. All U.S. drug products that contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine must be kept behind the pharmacy counter and only be sold in limited quantities. The behind the counter medication scheme is currently in practice in several European nations, Canada, Australia, and the United States (limited version).

Examples of Behind the Counter Medication:

Some cold and allergy medicines; Birth control pills; Migraine medications; Cough syrup with codeine; Anything containing Pseudoephedrine.

Prescription Drugs

A prescription drug (prescription medication or prescription medicine) is a pharmaceutical drug that legally requires a medical prescription to be dispensed. In contrast, over-the-counter and behind-the-counter drugs can be obtained without a prescription. A prescription drug requires a medical diagnosis and decision by a licensed healthcare professional as to which medicine is used, and is only intended for use by one person. Prescription medication can only be dispensed from a pharmacy (community, online, or mail-order) by a licensed pharmacist. In North America, the term "Rx" is often used as a short form for prescription drug.

Examples of Prescription Drugs:

Antibiotics; Statins; Antidepressants; Sleeping pills.

NOTES:

Sometimes, the same drug may come in both OTC and prescription versions, depending on the strength.

Regulations detailing the establishments where drugs may be sold, who is authorized to dispense them, and whether a prescription is required vary considerably from country to country.

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