Serious medicine: Over-the-counter medications

As a nation, we take nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) medications more today than ever before.1 Some of these products, like aspirin, have been sold for generations, and have never required a prescription. Many others started out as prescription-only medications, but have switched to nonprescription, over-the-counter (OTC) status.

Only the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can decide which medications can be OTC and which must remain prescription-only. In recent years, consumers have gained access to a growing range of OTC medicines. Today, there are more than 700 OTC medications on the market that use ingredients or dosages available only by prescription a few decades ago.2

Taking OTC seriously

There are two important things to remember here:

  • First, OTC products make our lives easier and are an important part of American health care.
  • Second, while the FDA says OTC medications are safe and effective to use without a doctor’s supervision — when you follow the directions on the label — that does not mean these kinds of medications are harmless.

Safe use is the key

Here are some tips to help you use OTC medications safely:

  • Read the label carefully. The FDA requires that all OTC medications have a clearly written label that spells out what you need to know about the medicine.
  • Treat only the symptoms that you have. If you have a stuffy nose, you don’t need a medicine that also treats a fever and cough.
  • Take the recommended dose at the recommended times. Overdosing can have serious consequences. You won’t feel any better if you take more medication than recommended.
  • Call your doctor if the OTC medication does not seem to be helping. You may have a serious illness that can get worse if you don’t get medical help.
  • Don’t use several OTC medications at once. They may interact with each other, or their active ingredients may be the same.
  • Tell your doctor when you take OTC medications.

Be smart, be safe

Over-the-counter medicines are safe and effective when you follow the directions on the label and as directed by your doctor or other health care professional. Be sure to choose and use over-the-counter medicine wisely.


1. U.S. Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Be MedWise. September 10, 2003

2. Pharmacy Times. Steady Performances for Cost-Saving OTCs. March 24th, 2011.

M50845-D 4/12 © 2012 United HealthCare Services, Inc.