Why can't I get a prescription for an over-the-counter medicine?
A GP, nurse or pharmacist will generally not give you a prescription for over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for a range of minor health conditions.
This is because of government policy to reduce the amount of money the NHS spends on prescriptions for treating minor conditions that usually get better on their own or can be obtained at a lower cost than through the use of prescriptions (currently £9.65).
Instead, patients are encouraged to seek out OTC medicines that are available to buy in a pharmacy or supermarket.
The team of health professionals at your local pharmacy can offer help and clinical advice to manage minor health concerns. If your symptoms suggest it's more serious, they'll ensure you get the care you need.
You can buy OTC medicines for any of these conditions:
- acute sore throat
- minor burns and scalds
- mild cystitis
- coughs, colds and nasal congestion
- mild dry skin
- cradle cap
- mild irritant dermatitis
- mild to moderate hay fever
- diarrhoea (adults)
- dry eyes and sore tired eyes
- mouth ulcers
- nappy rash
- excessive sweating
- infant colic
- infrequent cold sores of the lip
- sun protection
- infrequent constipation
- teething or mild toothache
- infrequent migraine
- insect bites and stings
- travel sickness
- mild acne
- warts and verrucas
- haemorrhoids (piles)
- oral thrush
- head lice
- prevention of tooth decay
- indigestion and heartburn
- ringworm or athlete's foot
- minor pain, discomfort and fever (such as aches and sprains, headache, period pain, and back pain)
For information on how these conditions are treated, look up your condition in the health A to Z.
In some cases, you can still get prescriptions for medicines used to treat these conditions.
You may still be prescribed a medicine for a condition on the list if:
- you need treatment for a long-term condition, for example regular pain relief for chronic arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease
- you need treatment for more complex forms of minor illnesses, for example migraines that are very bad and where OTC medicines do not work
- you need an OTC medicine to treat a side effect of a prescription medicine or symptom of another illness, such as constipation when taking certain painkillers
- the medicine has a licence that does not allow the product to be sold to certain groups of patients. This could include babies, children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- the person prescribing thinks that a patient cannot treat themselves, for example because of mental health problems
Probiotics, vitamins and minerals
GPs, nurses or pharmacists will also generally no longer prescribe probiotics or some vitamins and minerals. You can get the vitamins and minerals you need from eating a healthy, varied and balanced diet, or you can buy supplements at a pharmacy or supermarket.
Why has the NHS reduced these prescriptions?
Before these changes in 2018, the NHS spent around £569 million a year on prescriptions for medicines that could readily be bought from a pharmacy or supermarket, such as paracetamol.
By reducing the amount it spends on OTC medicines, the NHS can give priority to treatments for people with more serious conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and mental health problems.
Published: Aug 12, 2023