Is cheap medication worth the cost to your health?

Many medications for common ailments can be bought without consulting a doctor. Some meds can be bought online and you can get the generic versions of others. Nicolette Dirk looks at when it’s best to buy your medication over the counter, without consulting a doctor, and which medications should you only take on advice from your doctor. She spoke to medical experts to find out the safe way to save money on medication.

How safe is it to buy medication online?

Dr. Dominique Stott, executive of medical standards and services at PPS, says it is not advisable to buy any medication online as there is no quality guarantee.

You can be sure, however, that over the counter (OTC) meds have gone through some quality testing.  “All medications are required by the MCC (Medication Control Council) to be thoroughly tested and properly labelled. Provided that the medication meets the quality requirements by the MCC, it may be sold OTC by a supermarket or pharmacy,” says Stott.

OTC medications are sold in this way, as it is assumed that the consumer will read the instructions and adhere to the advised dosages and indications.


Which medication is safe to buy OTC?

OTC medications are available to treat minor ailments such as headaches, coughs and colds, as well as minor skin ailments, as they are considered not to be dangerous to one’s health and therefore do not need a doctor’s prescription.

According to Stott this applies to the following medications:

–      Schedule 0: which can be sold by a supermarket (e.g. aspirin),

–      Schedule 1 and 2: which are available without a prescription at a pharmacy (e.g. cough mixtures).

Dr Rudy Onia, medical director for Merk pharmaceuticals, says that people with chronic illness should be cautious when buying medication OTC.

“Medication for chronic illness like high blood pressure or diabetes won’t always interact well with other medication bought OTC,” says Onia.

Patients suffering from chronic illnesses also need to be cautious when it comes to generic medication.

“For people suffering from chronic illness, generic medication can be risky because its potency can be up to 20% lower or higher than the patient’s normal prescription,” says Onia.


Which cases validate getting medication without consulting a doctor?

Stott says that on the package insert for each OTC medication is the indication as to when medical advice should be sought. “This would include headaches, which do not improve within a short period of time or which develop with other symptoms such as vomiting or rash,” says Stott.

Even a simple cough, which continues longer than a short period, should be investigated, as there may be a bacterial infection requiring an antibiotic. But she adds that a pharmacist or assistant is trained to give advice regarding the overuse of these medications and when expert help should be sought so speak to the pharmacist if in doubt.


Which medications should you only take on advice from your doctor?

 All medication that has been scheduled three and up are required to have a script. This is because the use of this type of medication either requires physical examination or medical justification. This is the case with antibiotics, or long term medications requiring follow up or dosage adjustment such as anxiety and anti-depressants. It also applies to hypertension and diabetic treatments to ensure optimum efficacy.

“All medications should only be taken when there is a specific need for it. Unless the medication is used to treat a chronic condition or has been given to you by a medical professional, it should be considered occasional,” says Stott.

This would be in the case when, for example, headache tablets of any type are required for more than 10 days a month. A doctor must then be consulted.

Stott says that this is because there is a danger that taking headache tablets for more than 10 days a month can lead to what is known as a medication overuse headache.

“This is a serious complication of headache tablets, as it leads to an increased need to use headache tablets and often other stronger medication. Long term headache tablet abuse can lead to permanent kidney and liver damage,” says Stott.


Is OTC medication an affordable option?

Stott says this is definitely an affordable option for normally healthy individuals, who are seeking simple symptomatic relief from common conditions. When used responsibly, they are an ideal short term solution to a common problem.

Onia says that when you feel confident you have nothing more than a symptom for a minor illness you should opt for OTC medication. But if your symptoms do not improve, you should not delay seeking medical attention.


What should you consider before self-medicating?

Getting your meds OTC may be easy enough, but it is important that you read and adhere to the advice on the package insert.

In addition, be sensible and responsible when taking any medication. If you feel that your condition it is worsening, consult a healthcare professional immediately.


How much can you save on generics?

Medication can be expensive. A simple antibiotic prescription can set you back quite a bit. The good news is you can save money by asking whether there are generic versions for the medications that you’ve been prescribed.


Moneybags conducted a simple survey to find out how much you could potentially save by visiting a Clicks pharmacy:

Pain medication:

Compral pain tablets (100 tablets): R47

Generic version: Painamol: R17


Cough medication:

Linctagon cough syrup (200ml): R79.95

Generic version: Alcophyllex cough syrup: R14


Flu capsules:

Linctagon flu capsules: R89-95

Generic version: Endcol flu capsules: R30