Difference Between OTC and Prescription Drugs (With Table)

A drug is a chemical that is used to diagnose, treat, prevent, or mitigate illness. Prescription-only and over-the-counter (OTC) medications are the two main types of pharmaceuticals. Both prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals have a role to play in enhancing the health and well-being of individuals all over the world. Factors like side effects and safety are closely monitored in both types of medications.

OTC vs Prescription Drugs

The main difference between OTC and prescription drugs is that prescription drugs are created specifically for certain people and usage. OTC drugs are generally thought to be safe for everybody and can be used for several purposes. Only mild symptoms are treated with over-the-counter medications. Major illnesses and disorders necessitate the use of stronger prescription medications as well as other medical treatments.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are primarily used to treat minor health issues. Some OTC medications may be found in supermarkets, but while some can only be found in pharmacies. To get access to some of them, the buyer needs to speak with a pharmacist. OTC drugs allow individuals to relieve many bothersome symptoms and cure some diseases without having to visit a doctor.

Prescription medicines are generally powerful pharmaceuticals that necessitate a doctor’s or dentist’s prescription. Prescription drugs can help treat a wide range of disorders when taken as directed by a doctor. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy can both benefit from stimulants. Anti-anxiety, anti-panic, and anti-sleep medications are all CNS depressants. Pain, coughing, and diarrhea can all be treated with opioids.

Comparison Table Between OTC and Prescription Drugs

Parameters of Comparison


Prescription Drugs


No authorized prescription is required.

An authorized prescription from a doctor is required.


Drug shops or supermarkets.

Available only in a pharmacy.


Considered safe for all.

Single individual.

Regulated by

OTC Drug monographs.



Less costly.

Comparatively more priced.

What is OTC?

Non-prescription pharmaceuticals are over-the-counter medications that may be purchased without a prescription. The majority of them are for self-limiting ailments, and they typically come with instructions on how to utilize them. Some OTC medications were once only available by prescription but were later deemed safe for use by the general population or reformulated for OTC use.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some medications can be purchased over the counter in lesser amounts whereas greater quantities require a prescription. There is also a relatively limited class of OTC medications. While some items are deemed over the counter, they are stored behind the pharmacy counter and delivered by a pharmacist.

Some products, such as the abused pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), may require correct identification and signature. In the event of an opiate overdose, naloxone is a life-saving medicine that may reverse drowsiness and slow breathing. The risk of side effects is minimal in healthy persons who take OTC drugs regularly and correctly.

Some people, though, are at a higher risk. Very young children, older individuals, and persons who take many medications fall into this category. When the Food and Medicine Administration (FDA) considers reclassifying a prescription drug as OTC, safety is a primary issue. Unlike health foods, nutritional supplements (including medicinal plants), and complementary treatments, most OTC medications have been thoroughly researched.

What is Prescription Drugs?

A prescription drug may only be given to a patient with the prescription order of a licensed medical expert. Prescription drugs are all registered medicines with an AUST-R number on the label. Opioids, depressants, and stimulants are the three most prevalent prescription medication groups.

Prescription opioids are painkillers that do not cure infections, decrease inflammation, or make any actual physical changes to make a person feel better. CNS depressants are drugs that are used to relieve anxiety and panic attacks. Depressants act by altering brain chemicals, causing the body to slow down. They function by altering the gamma-aminobutyric acid neurotransmitter in the brain.

This molecule is involved in the communication system of the brain. Stimulants are drugs that are used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Stimulants increase or “stimulate” the brain, as their name implies. The increased release of the chemical dopamine in the brain, which is involved in reward, concentration, and attention, is responsible for these benefits.

Prescription medications used as prescribed usually do not have a long list of adverse effects, but consuming them in a different form than prescribed might result in major difficulties. When prescription medicines are used with other materials, such as alcohol, the effects are amplified, which can result in hazardous side effects including overdosing or even death.

Main Differences Between OTC and Prescription Drugs

  1. Prescription medications must be prescribed by a qualified practitioner, however, OTC pharmaceuticals do not need to be supplied with a prescription from a qualified practitioner.
  2. Prescription pharmaceuticals are purchased from a pharmacy, whereas OTC medications are purchased from drug shops or supermarkets.
  3. Prescription drugs are Prescribed for and manufactured for use by a single individual, although OTC medications are generally recognized as safe for almost everyone and can be used for several purposes.
  4. FDA regulates prescription pharmaceuticals through the New Drug Application (NDA) procedure, whereas OTC drugs are regulated under OTC Drug monographs.
  5. Prescription pharmaceuticals are frequently more priced than over-the-counter medications. Only those medications that were originally prescribed but are now available over the counter are slightly more costly.


Over-the-counter medications are seldom covered by insurance, therefore the individual purchasing them must pay full retail price. Prescription medications, on the other hand, are generally always covered by insurance, and patients are only responsible for a percentage of the cost or a minor deductible. When prescribed or over-the-counter drugs are not used properly, they can all induce negative effects.

When these pharmaceuticals are taken in a different way than prescribed, the amount consumed might be far more than a usual or safe dose. Whether using a prescription or over-the-counter medicine, it’s critical to follow the instructions and use the drug just as directed to avoid any adverse effect.


  1. https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00002512-200522050-00001
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5422566/