How to save money on over-the-counter medicines

Published by Gary Adams on 13 October 2015.
Last updated on 13 October 2015

Generic drugs falling out of a pill box

Britons spend over £2.3 billion a year on over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, according to industry body the Proprietary Association of Great Britain – that translates to 964 million packs of such medicine a year.

It’s a strong and influential industry, with medicines manufactured by well-known brands presented in soothing colours and issued with bold claims promising peace of body and mind. You could be forgiven for thinking that all of this is worth the high price but, as with most products, there are far cheaper alternatives to big brand medicines that offer exactly the same cure. You just have to dig a little deeper into the shelves to find them.

What’s a generic medicine?

Medicines are split into two broad categories – branded and generics. Branded drugs are what you see on TV, manufactured by companies that are often household names; while generics are manufactured by firms most people have never heard of and packaged in relatively plain-boxes lurking towards the back of the pharmacy.

In some countries that may lack strict regulation or transparency, it makes sense to go for branded drugs as the alternative could be risky. However, those of us lucky enough to live in the UK can be sure that generics have gone through (and continue to go through) strict regulation and testing, courtesy of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Of course, all drugs carry some degree of risk, which is why this article shouldn’t be taken as any sort of advice, but rather as background for your own research into saving money on everyday medicines. Always consult a doctor or pharmacist if you have worries about potential allergies to ingredients, or indeed if you have any concerns at all regarding your health.

While the packaging of generics make Australian cigarette boxes look appealing and the lack of sugar-coated textures and tastes may be a bitter pill to swallow, if you grab a branded product in one hand and a generic in the other and take a careful look at the active ingredients list, you will note that you are paying a huge mark-up for what is essentially the same product.

In the case of cough medicine, it’s debatable whether it actually works at all. The NHS has gone on record to state that, for cough medicines: “there's little evidence to suggest they're any more effective than simple home remedies, and they're not suitable for everyone.” It goes on to suggest that: “A homemade remedy containing honey and lemon is likely to be just as useful and safer to take.”

Below, we’ve compiled a table that shows some of Britain’s best-loved OTC medicines, their active ingredient(s) and a price comparison with a generic supermarket alternative. It shows, for example, that you can pick up common painkilling drugs, such as paracetomol for 500% less than you would with a branded product. Bear in mind that package sizes (ie, the total number of pills in each box) may differ; but generics still usually end up costing less even if you have to buy more than one box to match a branded offering’s total number of pills.

Again, always seek advice before you take any drug, even those available over the counter. And remember, while the active ingredients may be exactly the same, branded medicines may ‘taste’ different to generics.

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