11 November 2015 09:56:58

Medicines - could you dodge the doctor?

In Ask Your Pharmacist Week, we're encouraging people to take advantage of our highly-trained pharmacy colleagues, who can often help you avoid the wait to see a doctor.

Today, we take it for granted that we can pop a pack of painkillers into our shopping trolley as we go around the supermarket, or get a treatment for a runny tummy from our pharmacist. But it wasn't always like that - just over 30 years ago, you had to go to the doctor to get an ibuprofen tablet! 1983 saw the first 'POM to P switch' - a POM is a Prescription Only Medicine, while a 'P' medicine is one you can buy if your pharmacist recommends it. By the turn of the 21st century, there were 100 medicines which no longer needed to be prescribed, and today there are about 150.

'P' medicines are considered safe to get without a doctor's prescription, but only if a pharmacist asks a series of questions to make sure the customer doesn't need to see a doctor and it's safe to give them. Every single one has to go before a committee to check it's safe to make available. In Ask Your Pharmacist Week, we're encouraging people to take advantage of our highly-trained pharmacy colleagues, who can often help you avoid the wait to see a doctor. These medicines are just as effective as the kind you'd get from your doctor, they're just as safe - and you don't need an appointment!

Help the NHS - see your pharmacist!

We all know the NHS is strapped for cash. The cost to the NHS of an appointment with the GP is about £32 - for an A&E visit, it's £110. Yet a recent survey suggested over three quarters of A&E attendances could have been dealt with without a doctor.


As well as paracetamol and anti-inflammatory tablets like ibuprofen, you can now get some strong painkillers containing codeine or dihydrocodeine. But do be aware that taking too many painkillers can be addictive. It can also lead to medication-induced headache, where rebound from not having a painkiller actually brings on more headaches.

Anti-inflammatory tablets and gels

Many people like topical versions of anti-inflammatory medicines, which may be better tolerated than tablet versions. They're particularly useful for muscle aches and strains, but can help with arthritis pain as well.

These days, we also have a third category apart from POM and P. It's 'GSL' medicines, which can be sold without pharmacist advice in corner shops and petrol stations. They tend to be sold in smaller packs or at lower doses than P medicines - for instance, you can get 400 mg ibuprofen tablets from the pharmacist but only 200 mg from other shops.


Antihistamine tablets , steroid nose sprays and allergy eye drops can be invaluable not just for hay fever but for all sorts of minor allergic reactions. Sedating antihistamine tablets or liquids (like Piriton®) can be useful forinsect bites, eczema and chickenpox if you or your little one can't settle because of itching. You can now get topical steroids for insect bites and eczema or inflamed skin.


There are dozens of 'antacid' remedies available from your pharmacist - liquids and chewable tablets in a host of flavours. I've seen pregnant ladies with heartburn swig them from the bottle (not recommended!) and people popping them like sweeties. They all work to soothe the stomach by counteracting its acid, but they only last for a few hours. In the past, thousands of people had major surgery every year to treatstomach ulcers and severe indigestion. Then tablets like cimetidine and ranitidine were developed, revolutionising indigestion and heartburn treatment. More recently, the 'PPIs' - omeprazole, lansoprazole, esomeprazole - have turned out to be more effective still - the effect of these tablets is stronger and much longer lasting, although they don't give immediate relief as antacids do. Many of these tablets are now available without prescription - your pharmacist can advise on which problems they're best suited to.

The best of the rest

The medicines regulators have highlighted several conditions which are relatively easy to diagnose (they have typical symptoms, like the sticky eye of conjunctivitis) and where getting a medicine without a prescription is unlikely to result in a serious condition being missed. Among the most useful are:

  • Chloramphenicol eye ointment or drops - a five-day course of 'topical' antibiotic for conjunctivitis
  • Sumatriptan tablets for acute treatment of migraine that's already been diagnosed by a doctor (the triptan tablets often work for migraine when simple painkillers don't)
  • Acyclovir and penciclovir - topical treatments to be applied as soon as possible to cold sores
  • Hyoscine skin patches for travel sickness
  • Antifungal treatments for thrush and athlete's foot - a huge variety of options in tablet, spray, pessary and cream form.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.