Why can't I get a prescription for an over-the-counter medicine?

Your GP, nurse or pharmacist will generally not give you a prescription for over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for a range of minor health conditions.

Instead, OTC medicines are available to buy in a pharmacy or supermarket. Look up your nearest pharmacy.

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
  • conjunctivitis
  • mild cystitis
  • coughs, colds and nasal congestion
  • mild dry skin
  • cradle cap
  • mild irritant dermatitis
  • dandruff
  • mild to moderate hay fever
  • diarrhoea (adults)
  • dry eyes and sore tired eyes
  • mouth ulcers
  • earwax
  • nappy rash
  • excessive sweating
  • infant colic
  • sunburn
  • infrequent cold sores of the lip
  • sun protection
  • infrequent constipation
  • teething or mild toothache
  • infrequent migraine
  • threadworms
  • insect bites and stings
  • travel sickness
  • mild acne
  • warts and verrucae
  • 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 here.

Exceptions

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 doesn't 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 and some vitamins and minerals. You can get these from eating a healthy, varied and balanced diet, or buy them at your pharmacy or supermarket.

Why is the NHS reducing these prescriptions?

The NHS currently spends around £136 million a year on prescriptions for medicines that can 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.

Page last reviewed: 23/07/2018
Next review due: 23/07/2021