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What you need to know about buying “over the counter” medication online

Gwyn Williams
Mar 4, 2022 8:00:00 PM

Over the counter (OTC) medication is the category of medication that can be purchased without a prescription to treat relatively minor illnesses. This includes cough and cold remedies and simple pain relief medication, such as Paracetamol, and can be found in pharmacies, supermarkets and other outlets.

However, despite the rising demand for OTC medications and the increased government investment in medication in general – many people have questions about what “over the counter” means and how to buy over the counter medication online. And so with that, the MedAdvisor team will set out to answer the leading questions we hear when it comes to OTC medication in this blog.

What does “over the counter” mean?

Before going into what “over the counter” medication means, let’s take a step back to look at the overall medication landscape in the UK.

The types of medication in the UK can be broadly broken down into three legal categories; Prescription Only Medication (POM), Pharmacy (P) and General Sale List (GSL) medicines.

According to the NHS, "The underlying principle for classifying medicines is to maximise timely access to effective medicines while minimising the risk of harm from inappropriate use.”

Prescription Only Medication (POM) needs to be prescribed by an authorised health professional, for example a doctor. Pharmacy (P) medicines can be purchased from a pharmacy under a pharmacist’s supervision, although some P and GSL medicines can also be prescribed by an authorised prescriber. Lastly, General Sale List (GSL) medicines can be purchased from any outlet and includes lower-strength cough and cold remedies and small packs of Paracetamol.

When the term “OTC” is used, it refers to both GSL and P Medicines; the term is used to help differentiate between medicines that require a prescription and medicines that don’t. However, the term is informal and isn’t used in an official capacity by health bodies or agencies.

Things to look out for when purchasing OTC medication online

When it comes to buying OTC medication online, you should consider if the website is genuine and where the medicines have been sourced, so you are confident that you aren’t buying counterfeit medication.

If buying from an online pharmacy you can check if it’s registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) or Pharmaceutical Society Northern Ireland (PSNI). You can do this by searching the respective websites: GPhC or PSNI. The GPhC also provides further support and advice on buying medication online safely, which you can read here.

Lastly, the GPhC has an internet pharmacy logo scheme to assure patients that they are buying medication from an authorised and licensed pharmacy that has met regulatory and industry standards. This scheme is voluntary so you may not see the logo on every pharmacy website. It is important to note that regardless of whether an online pharmacy has chosen to opt-in to the scheme, they should still be registered with the GPhC.

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