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Tablet, Capsule, Caplet or Liquid: Which Medicine Type Is Best? Posted: March 12th, 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.

Tablet, Capsule, Caplet or Liquid: Which Medicine Type Is Best?

Have you ever found yourself in the drugstore deliberating over pill choices? It's difficult enough to decide which brand of over-the-counter medication to buy, and now you're faced with slew of pill formats for the same medicine -- tablets, capsules, caplets, liquid-gels, and gelcaps.

Although the number of pill formats can seem overwhelming at times, over-the-counter drug makers provide many choices to fulfill the needs and preferences of consumers.

The Fastest Delivery System

Manufacturers and pharmacists continually work to create "delivery systems" to get medications into your system faster and more efficiently. According to Norman Tomaka, a pharmacist at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Florida, liquid, or medication in solution, is the fastest delivery system. Liquid is the fastest format because it gets the drug into your bloodstream the quickest.

However, not all medications are suitable for liquid format. For example, ibuprofen does not taste very good, and only about 100 milligrams can be delivered in liquid before it becomes unpalatable. Tomaka explains that 100 milligrams is a fine dosage for children, but adults often take 400-800 milligrams -- taking that much ibuprofen in a liquid format would be both inconvenient and expensive.

Different Formats Serve Different Purposes

That's where liquid capsules (gelcaps and liquid-gels) come in handy. They allow the medication to contain a higher dosage in a more convenient form. Liquid capsules are oval shaped and have a gel covering that dissolves quickly in the stomach. This pill format is ideal for medication that should be fast-acting, such as pain relievers and sleep aids.

But not all medications should be dissolved in the stomach's acidic environment, which is where tablets and caplets, especially coated ones, come into play. These medications break down more slowly and are often coated to protect the stomach as they pass through to the intestine, where they can begin to work.

"The rate of effectiveness is the same," Tomaka says, "Capsules, caplets and tablets are all the same, for the most part."
However, Tomaka notes that if your doctor or pharmacist recommends you take your medication with a lot of water, it's wise to heed the advice. Tablets and caplets are often coated to protect their contents. More liquid may be required to help the tablet or caplet dissolve so that the medication's benefits are delivered in the correct amount of time.

Go with Your Personal Preference

Given that medicines are equally effective no matter what their format, much of the choice comes down to your personal preference. For some, caplets, with their elongated shape and smooth surface, are easier to swallow than traditional tablets. Others prefer capsules, but if you suffer from dry mouth, capsules can be sticky and difficult to swallow.

Prices Vary

Pricing is a factor of market conditions, says Tomaka. You may get a better deal on a particular drug format because of a store sale.

But you may also pay more for a medication because the delivery system is relatively new to the market. Tomaka also out that there are more manufacturing costs involved in creating liquid gels than uncoated tablets, which could result in a higher price.

Because health insurance doesn't cover over-the-counter medicines, it's best to research local sales to find the best deal on your preferred type of medication.

Megg Mueller