Drug Guide

Over-the-Counter Drugs (OTC)

By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are medicines that may be sold directly to a consumer without a prescription from a health care professional, as compared to prescription drugs, which may only be sold to consumers possessing a valid prescription. 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. OTC drugs are usually regulated by active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), not final products. By regulating APIs instead of specific drug formulations, governments allow manufacturers freedom to formulate ingredients, or combinations of ingredients, into proprietary mixtures.

The term over-the-counter may be somewhat counter-intuitive, since, in many countries, these drugs are often located on the shelves of stores like any other packaged product. In contrast, prescription drugs are almost always literally passed over a counter from the pharmacist to the customer. Some drugs may be legally classified as over-the-counter (i.e. no prescription is required), but may only be dispensed by a pharmacy employee after an assessment of the patient's needs and/or the provision of patient education. In many countries, a number of OTC drugs are available in establishments without a pharmacy, such as general stores, supermarkets, gas stations, etc. 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.

In the United States, the manufacture and sale of OTC substances is regulated by the FDA. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that all "new drugs" obtain a New Drug Application ("NDA") prior to entering interstate commerce, but the act exempts any drugs generally recognized as safe and effective ("GRAS/E") from this requirement. In order to deal with the vast number of OTC drugs that were already on the market prior to the requirement that all drugs obtain an NDA, the FDA created the OTC monograph system to review classes of drugs and categorize them as GRAS/E after review by expert panels. This meant that certain classes of OTC drugs were not required to obtain an NDA and could remain on the market if they conformed to the monograph guidelines for doses, labeling, and warnings.

Thus, manufacture must be done either pursuant to an FDA monograph, which specifies types of OTC drugs, active ingredients and labeling requirements, or pursuant to a New Drug Application (NDA), for products which do not fit within a specific monograph. Examples of OTC substances approved in the USA are sunscreens, anti-microbial and anti-fungal products, external and internal analgesics such as lidocaine and aspirin, psoriasis and eczema topical treatments, anti-dandruff shampoos containing coal tar, and other topical products with a therapeutic effect.

The Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising of OTC products. This is in contrast to prescription drug advertising, which is regulated by the FDA. The FDA requires that OTC products are labeled with an approved Drug Facts label to educate consumers about their medications. These labels comply to a standard format and are intended to be easy for typical consumers to understand. Drug Facts labels include information on the product's active ingredient(s), indications and purpose, safety warnings, directions for use, and inactive ingredients.

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