Medication: The Facts on Prescription, Over-the-Counter, and Herbal Medications
Medications have many forms. When taken correctly, they can be lifesaving, but if misused or abused, their effects can be deadly. The sites featured in this guide can help you learn about medications by distinguishing between the different kinds, providing usage instructions and overviews of specific drugs, outlining ways to find help paying for medication, and more.
The types of medication that people take at home can be divided into two groups: prescription and over-the-counter. Also, many people use herbal supplements to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions. Although these differ in many ways, they share one major characteristic: they are all substances that can affect your body in positive and negative ways. This section can help you understand how prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and herbal supplements differ.
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Approved medications have to be proven safe and effective. Over-the-counter drugs generally don’t need a doctor’s supervision to be used safely, and their risk of abuse is low, according to the FDA.
- The FDA does not regulate herbal supplements the same way it regulates prescription drugs. That means supplements aren’t tested like pharmaceuticals, and there isn’t the same guarantee of the substance’s purity or safety. Always talk to your doctor before you decide to take a supplement.
- Generic medications are those that have a similar chemical makeup to a brand-name drug, but aren’t made by the company that developed and patented it. For example, Claritin, an over-the-counter allergy medication, is found in many supermarkets. Beside it are store-brand medications that are cheaper but have the same active ingredient: loratadine. Generic medications are nearly identical chemically, but cost less.
For definitions of “prescription” and “over-the-counter” …
For an overview of prescription medications …
is part of the WebMD family. This site describes prescription medication, explains how it differs from over-the-counter medication, and provides historical background.
For an overview of over-the-counter medications …
is a site run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. The site has a short introduction to over-the-counter medication.
The American Academy of Family Physicians
offers more detail on the types of over-the-counter medications sold. There’s also a section on reading an over-the-counter label and advice for getting the most from your medication.
For an overview of herbal supplements …
The Office of Dietary Supplements
is part of the National Institutes of Health and has a useful overview of botanicals, including herbal supplements. This page describes what legally defines a supplement, how supplements are prepared, and what methods are used to evaluate a supplement’s safety.
For an explanation of generic medication …
has a page describing generic medication with examples from your supermarket and information on how it differs from name-brand medication.
Alcohol will decrease antibiotics’ effectiveness. People who take a group of psychiatric drugs called MAO inhibitors can’t eat aged cheese, chocolate, or bananas. For those who take several medications, or those who see multiple specialists simultaneously, it’s especially important to know what you’re taking and how it could affect you. Use the sites in this section to learn about the side effects of specific medications and supplements, how to take them properly, and where to learn more about what you are taking.
- The databases in this section provide a great deal of information about a medication, including what it treats, what its side effects are, whether people with certain conditions (illnesses or pregnancy, for example) can take it, and any other special instructions.
- Be sure to throw away any expired medication in your house, and do not take it. Chemicals break down over time, and a prescription that once helped you could now make you sick.
For information on specific drugs …
has a complete database of medications and herbal supplements. Search for your medication by name to learn what it’s prescribed for, how to use it, whether there are any dietary restrictions associated with it, and what its side effects are.
is a page created by Express Scripts, Inc., a pharmacy benefit management company. Learn about a drug by plugging it into the search box on the left side of the page. Although the site is commercially sponsored, it doesn’t endorse a particular medication. Another page on this site allows you to check drug interactions
by selecting two medications from an extensive list.
is an Internet drug index that is owned and operated by WebMD
. The site’s most useful features include the pill identifier, which helps you determine what medication you have by looking at its shape, its color, and a code on the side of the pill. An A–Z drug index has information about dosage, precautions, side effects, and instructions for many medications.
For herbal supplements …
The Cleveland Clinic
has a page that describes how supplements can interact with conditions or medications.
has a page on herbal supplements that explains what is considered a supplement and offers advice for taking them safely.
The American Academy of Family Physicians
has a question-and-answer page about herbal supplements. This site also has downloadable charts describing possible side effects and interactions; scroll down to find them.
The Dietary Supplements Labels Database
is run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and NIH. It allows searches by brand name, active ingredient, or manufacturer. Search herbs, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids for links describing uses, adverse effects, general information, and mechanisms of action.
It costs pharmaceutical companies millions of dollars to research medicines, get a prescription drug approved, and put it on the market. Consequently, prescriptions, especially newer ones, are often very expensive. For those without insurance coverage, the costs can seem especially overwhelming. But there are federal, state, and private programs available to help defray costs for those who are eligible.
- Medicare, the U.S. government-sponsored health care plan, has prescription drug coverage for people 65 and older. Younger people with disabilities may also qualify. To determine if you’re qualified, use Medicare’s contacts page to find the appropriate office to call in your state.
- Medicaid, a state-federal partnership, offers medical and prescription drug coverage for people who meet certain income guidelines. Those guidelines vary by state, so use the Medicaid contacts page to find your state’s office and learn more.
- Many pharmaceutical companies have programs to help people pay for prescription drugs. Visit the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a nonprofit organization that works with dozens of pharmaceutical companies, to see if you qualify.
- Some people use the Internet to buy medication. Be extremely careful when going online unless you’re ordering through a service your insurance company uses. Some insurance plans require you to use mail-order services such as Caremark that allow you to refill medication (with a prescription) over the phone or through a Web site.
- Ignore any “cheap drug” e-mail you may receive. The pills you order through these sites often aren’t regulated by the FDA and may be counterfeit. They could be ineffective or, even worse, harmful to you. If you’re having trouble paying for prescription drugs, rather than risk your safety on an untested product, use some of the sites below to find help.
For an overview of saving money on prescriptions …
For guidance on buying medication online …
For information on Medicare’s prescription drug plans …
Medications are largely safe, but like anything else, accidents can happen. Because millions of prescriptions are filled in hospitals and pharmacies every year, medication errors, like someone receiving the wrong dose of a medication or the incorrect medication entirely, are among the most common medical errors. The Institute of Medicine estimates that medication errors hurt at least one million people each year. Through proper medication management, accidents can be averted. This section offers tips on medication safety and resources to help you keep track of the medications you’re taking. There is also a section on prescription drug abuse, an issue of growing concern among government officials.
- Medication errors can happen in almost any setting: the doctor’s office, hospital, pharmacy, and even your own home. The sites in the Picks have tips for avoiding the common medication errors that occur in each of these places.
- According to an AARP policy report on medical errors, the majority of medication errors are preventable. Since people do make mistakes, it’s essential you take responsibility for your health by paying attention to the medicines you take.
For drug labels …
(formerly the American Association for Retired Persons) has a page explaining what over-the-counter medication labels mean. There is also a short glossary defining the terms you’d find on over-the-counter labels.
The National Women’s Health Information Center
has replicated a prescription drug label on this site. Clicking on any item will help you decipher the label by revealing what it means. The page is available in Spanish and in a larger font.
For avoiding medication errors …
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
offers six tips to avoid medication mistakes. Tips include asking the doctor questions about a medication, knowing what the medication’s name is, and knowing what it’s supposed to treat.
The Institute of Medicine
has a fact sheet, “What You Can Do to Avoid Medication Errors,” that offers advice for different settings, including the doctor’s office, pharmacy, hospital, and your home.
has a free form you can download and fill out to keep track of your medication. Take this form to any doctors you see to help them prescribe the best medication for you.
For prescription drug abuse …
The National Institute on Drug Abuse
has a page on prescription drug abuse, including the types of medications abused and statistics. The page also contains links that describe the health effects of using certain medications for nonmedical uses.
Pharmaceutical research is a multi-billion-dollar industry that changes every day. These sites have drug news and research on medications and herbal supplements.
- If you’re interested in staying up to date on drug news, like safety alerts, recalls, or advisories, sign up for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s MedWatch e-mail updates. If a medication you’re taking is recalled, call your doctor immediately. There could be complications if you suddenly stop taking a medicine.
For information on drug news …
For herbal supplement news and research …
has a page devoted to news articles about herbal and dietary supplements.
collects articles and blog posts from around the world. Type “herbal supplements” or the name of a specific supplement you’re interested in into the search box at the top of the page to get the latest news available.
Swedish Medical Center
has an article titled “Study Finds That Most Online Information About Herbal Supplements Is Misleading.” The study analyzed nearly 450 Web sites to see what they said about the most popular supplements, such as Saint-John’s-wort, ginseng, and echinacea. More than half the sites analyzed claimed the supplement advertised could prevent, cure, or treat a specific disease, and such claims are against the law.
For recalls and warnings …
The Consumers Union
is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting consumers’ rights. This page has Consumers Union articles about drug effectiveness and cost, generic medication, and Medicare.
has updated lists of all recalled drugs, vaccines, medical devices, and other biological products.
Most Recent Guides