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Store-Brand or Name-Brand: Which Over-the-Counter Medication Is the Best Value? Posted: March 4th, 2010

By Megg Mueller

Megg Mueller is a journalist with almost two decades of experience. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal, as editor of health care and education manuals and was an assistant travel editor for USATODAY.com.

Standing in the medication aisle at the drug store, you may feel a sense of Déjà vu. One medicine looks suspiciously like another. Why is the packaging different? Why is the price different?

The variety and number of over-the-counter (OTC) medications available can make the decision-making process difficult for some consumers. For example, there are more than 20 versions of Tylenol available to treat different symptoms. Add to that almost the same number of store-brand versions, and you may begin to see why the choices can be overwhleming.

So how does a smart shopper make a good buying decision?

Compare Labels

Beginning in 2002, all drug manufacturers were required to use a standardized label created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This easier-to-read and understand label makes it simple for consumers to compare one OTC medication to the next.

The name-brand and store-brand versions of medications have the same standardized label. It allows you to compare the active ingredient (make sure the dosages are the same) and the price, allowing you to choose the cheaper option of comparable products. Many store brands also note the name brand it compares with, which may make comparing medications easier.

Still, many people are more comfortable purchasing a name-brand medication. The millions of dollars spent on advertising and brand recognition often gives consumers a sense that these medicines are safer and more effective than their store-brand counterparts.

Consult with Your Pharmacist

While all this makes comparing medications easier, if you still have questions, you should consult with the pharmacist. Dr. Joel Zive, Vice President of Zive Pharmacy & Surgical Inc., in New York, advises consumers to consult with their pharmacists whenever they need assistance choosing medications. He offers these guidelines when talking to a pharmacist:

  • List all medications you're taking, including herbal remedies. Ask your pharmacy for a printout of your medications and keep it in your wallet.
  • Describe your symptoms and how long you've had them.
  • Read the labels carefully.

"With health care and health insurance so expensive, this is a way to utilize your pharmacy that is relatively inexpensive," Zive says.

What About Quality?

But should you focus solely on saving money when purchasing medications? Store-brands are generally cheaper than brand-name medications, but many people don't know that both versions of the OTC medications are often made in the same factory.

Stores contract with the manufacturers of brand-name medications to produce the same product, and because they don't bear the same advertising and marketing costs, the shelf price of the store-brand drug is much lower. If you need a prescription drug and have health insurance, your plan may require you to buy a generic version of the prescription medication.

A Word of Caution

Just because OTC medications are sold without prescriptions doesn't make them less potent. Dr. Zive offers this guidance about acetaminophen, one of the most common over-the-counter medications: "Right now the most a healthy adult can take is 4,000 mg a day. That's eight tablets of extra-strength Tylenol. If you go over that amount, you run the risk of liver damage. So you need to read the ingredients on an OTC to make sure you're not exceeding that."

You could be doubling up on acetaminophen without realizing it. Many medications contain acetaminophen, such as Theraflu, which has 1,000 mg per packet. The recommended dosage of Theraflu is four packets a day. If you are also taking a pain reliever, you may have gone over the daily limit and could be at risk. This is another reason it's important to consult with your pharmacist when you are considering an OTC medication.

"Pharmacists are well-trained in over-the-counter medications -- they have to be. It behooves you as a patient to ask questions about OTC," Zive says.

Megg Mueller