Over-the-Counter Products

Nasal spray bottleAspirin. Benadryl. Sudafed. Claritin. These and hundreds of other substances are known as “over-the-counter” products. Over-the-counter (OTC) products are available for purchase without a formal prescription from a physician.

The Merck Manual states, “At one time, most drugs were OTC. Before the FDA existed, just about anything could be put in a bottle and sold as a sure-fire cure. Alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and opium were included in some OTC products without notification to users.” Seeing a need for regulation, the government passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act in 1938. This law was a positive step, but it failed to provide clear rules about which drugs were to be prescription-only and which could be sold over-the-counter.

In 1951, the FD&C Act was amended to address issues of drug safety. The amendment spelled out the differences between OTC and prescription drugs. If a substance was not habit-forming, toxic or unsafe for use without physician’s approval, it could be sold as an OTC product. Another amendment, in 1962, dealt with issues of effectiveness and safety. It is admittedly difficult to define what is “safe” or “effective,” because what is safe and effective for one person may not be for another. 

The History of Pharmacy Museum's collection of OTC drugs represents an amazing historical record of medicine. From the snake oils and miracle cures peddle at late- 19th century travelling medicine shows to the products of giant corporations like Pfizer, the museum is home to thousands of antique over-the-counter medications from hundreds of manufacturers.

“Overview of Over-the-Counter Drugs.” Over-the-Counter Drugs: Merck Manual Home Edition. Merck Sharp & Dohme, n.d. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.

Originally posted: October 17, 2014
Last updated: September 2, 2015
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