Why can I buy some medicines without a prescription but not others?

Woman shopping at a pharm
Ever wondered why you can buy paracetamol in the shop but not antibiotics?


Have you ever walked into your local shop or supermarket and taken a look at all of the medications you can buy there? It seems like they’ve got everything!


Well, almost everything.


Although shops and supermarkets are allowed to stock everyday medicines like paracetamol, there is a huge list of other medicines that you can only get from your local pharmacy and some you can only get with a prescription from your doctor.


If you’ve ever wondered why there are different rules for different medications, you’ve come to the right place.


We’re going to take a look at the different kinds of medications and why they have to be sold the way they do.



Why are some medicines only available in pharmacies or on prescription?


The reason why there are restrictions on which medicines you can buy over the counter and which need a prescription from a doctor is simple, they need to be sure that you’re taking the right medication for you!


Some medicines can have side effects or may cause you harm if you use them incorrectly, so making sure that these medications are supervised by qualified doctors and pharmacist is the responsible thing to do.


There’s also a possibility that you may not choose the best medicine to treat your illness without a little help from your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist.


Pharmacists and doctors go through years of training to make sure they know all about the different kinds of medications available, how they work, what they treat, and whether they interact with other medications.


They’ve got years and years of specialised knowledge swirling around in those brains, so they’re in the best position to help you to choose the best medicine for your illness.


That’s why some medicines need a qualified pharmacist or doctor to ask you some questions before they’ll let you buy them, they need to be sure that this medicine is the absolute best choice for you.



What are the different kinds of medications?


So now we know why some medications are available in shops and some aren’t, we can take a deeper look at what the different classifications of medicines are. There are four kinds we’ll be covering today, and those are:


  • Prescription Only Medicines (POMs)
  • Pharmacy medicines (P)
  • General Sales License (GSL)
  • Traditional Herbal Registration (THR)


All medicines fall into one of these categories, although over time they may change and be made available in a different category.


For example, a medicine that is prescription only may be reclassified as a pharmacy or GSL medicine as we become more confident our knowledge about the medication and how it works.


For example, when we know more about the side effects a medicine can cause and how it interacts with other medicines.


What are Prescription Only Medicines (POMs)?


Prescription Only Medicines, or POMS, are exactly what you think they would be – medicines that are only available with a prescription from your doctor.


These medicines are usually designed to help to treat illnesses and conditions that are best monitored by a doctor or other health care professional, such as high blood pressure.


How do you know if your medicine is prescription only? Well, if you take a look at the box that your prescription only medication came in, you’ll notice a little square with the letters POM printed on the back.


Some common exampled of Prescription Only Medicines are antibiotics, antidepressants, and stronger painkillers.



What are Pharmacy Medicines (Ps)?


Next we have our Pharmacy Medicines, or Ps, and you can probably guess where you can get these! These are available over the counter in your local pharmacy or at online pharmacists like Chemist 4 U.


Just like with our POM medicines, if you look at a box of Pharmacy Medicines you’ll see a little P on the back of the box, so you know it can only be supplied by a qualified pharmacist.


When you see these products in our online store, you’ll notice a green and white cross in the product picture and on the product page which tells you you’re looking at a Pharmacy Medicine.


So, if these medicines need to be supplied by a pharmacist, how can they be sold online?


Well here at Chemist 4 U we have registered pharmacists working around the clock, checking all of the new orders that come in and making sure they are the right product for you.


When you add one of our Pharmacy medicines to your basket you’ll be asked to fill in a short online questionnaire which asks all of the questions that every single pharmacist has to ask before they supply these kinds of medicine.


Our pharmacists will review your answers to these questions and if everything’s fine we’ll continue with your order, if not then we’ll be in touch to let you know why and to offer you a better solution.


Some of the most common Pharmacy medicines include max strength cold and flu remedies, thrush treatments, and travel sickness tablets.



What are General Sales License medicines (GSL)?


Finally, we have our General Sales License medicines, or GSLs. These are all of the medicines that you can buy without supervision from a doctor or pharmacist and they usually treat common, everyday ailments such as headaches or hay fever.


These are the kinds of medicines that you’ll see in shops or supermarkets that don’t have a pharmacist on site and you’ll notice the little GSL letters on the side of the box to tell you that you’re fine to buy them whenever you like.


Although you can buy GSL medicines without supervision, there may still be some restrictions on how many you can buy at one time.


For example, you can only buy one packet of 16 paracetamol tablets at a time when you pick them up in the shop. This is to reduce the chances of someone taking an overdose of this medicine.


Some of the most popular GSL medicines are paracetamol and ibuprofen, hay fever medicines, and regular cold and flu medicines.



What is the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR)?


Before herbal medicines can be marketed in the UK, they need to apply for a Traditional Herbal Registration or THR.


Like with our other medicines, you’ll notice a box with the letter THR printed on your packet of herbal medicine, meaning that it has legally obtained its Traditional Herbal Registration.


THR medicines are usually for treating minor ailments and you don’t need supervision from a doctor or pharmacist to purchase them.


They’re popular with those who prefer to find natural alternatives for their illnesses and have had their safety and quality reviewed by a qualified professional before they are allowed to be marketed.


Some examples of popular THR medicines include Kalms, Nytol and other herbal sleeping remedies.


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What about everything else you can pick up at the pharmacy?


When you step into the pharmacy or look on the Chemist 4 U website you’ll notice pretty quickly that medicines aren’t the only thing available.


Well, here at Chemist 4 U we want to make sure that you can come to us for all of your health needs, so we make sure we stock everything you’ll need to be as healthy as you can possibly be.


So yes, we sell medicines but we also sell first aid supplies, toothbrushes, vitamins, condoms, shampoo, and all kinds of other things you’ll need to be the best you can be, always.



There we have it, now you know all there is to know about different kinds of medicines and where you can and can’t buy them.


So, the next time you’re in the supermarket or browsing the Chemist 4 U website why not try to guess which medicines are Ps and which are GSLs?


I’ll bet you’ll surprise yourself with all of your newfound knowledge. Go ahead, get out there and give it a try!


Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 22 September 2021
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