What is self-medication?
Self-medication is the treatment of common health problems with medicines especially designed and labelled for use without medical supervision and approved as safe and effective for such use.
Medicines for self-medication are often called ‘nonprescription’ or ‘over the counter’ (OTC) and are available without a doctor’s prescription through pharmacies. In some countries OTC products are also available in supermarkets and other outlets. Medicines that are available from doctors with a prescription are called prescription products (Rx products).
The term ‘responsible self-medication’ is often used to emphasise the appropriate use of OTC medicines by informed patients and consumers, with healthcare professional support where necessary. By contrast, the term ‘self-prescription’ is used for the inappropriate practice of using prescription products without medical supervision. Self-prescription is an unfortunate feature of a number of developing countries where good healthcare systems are absent or weak.
What are the benefits of responsible self-medication?
In a world of scarce government and in many countries scarce individual resources, responsible self-medication should be a cornerstone of healthcare provision and health policy.
Responsible self-medication can:
- Help to prevent and treat symptoms and ailments that do not require a doctor;
- Reduce the pressure on medical services where health care personnel are insufficient;
- Increase the availability of health care to populations living in rural or remote areas;
- Enable patients to control their own chronic conditions.
These benefits translate into patient and consumer wellness and productivity, economic gain for employers, and cost savings to healthcare budgets through reduced medicine budget cost and reduced physician visits.
What sort of conditions can be treated through self-medication?
In most countries patients and consumers are able to have direct access to products for many conditions, such as: Acne, Allergic conjunctivitis, Arthritic pain, Caries prevention, Cholesterol lowering/lipid control, Colds, Cold sores, Constipation, Cough, Dermatitis/eczema, Diarrhoea, Emergency contraception, Erectile dysfunction, Fever, Flu prevention and treatment, Haemorrhoids, Hay fever, Headache, Indigestion/heartburn, Insomnia, Male pattern baldness, Mild/moderate pain, Minor cuts and bruises, Mouth ulcers, Nausea, Neural tube defect prevention, Smoking addiction, Sore throat, Symptoms of PMS, Topical Bacterial infections and Weight management.
The list of treatable conditions and available products continues to grow as the benefits of responsible self-medication are realised.
What does “Rx-to-OTC switch” mean?
The transfer of prescription (“Rx”) medicines to nonprescription or OTC status is known as the “Rx-to-OTC switch”. Many new medicines are first introduced as prescription medicines. After a sufficient time has passed in the use of the medicine by many patients and large-scale experience and scientific information has been gathered, for suitable conditions a manufacturer may elect to submit an application to the appropriate authority for the medicine to be given OTC status.
Where can I find out about products available for self-medication?
Locally, your pharmacist or other healthcare professional should be able to help you. More broadly, there are many organisations and websites that are dedicated to health, including those of companies that research and manufacture medicines, and the country associations that represent the companies. Our ‘useful links’ section gives some key examples.
What do other organisations say about self-care and self-medication?
Many healthcare organizations have made important statements on self-care and self-medication, singly or jointly with WSMI. Some selected illustrations only are given here:
The World Health Organization (WHO): “It has become widely accepted that self-medication has an important place in the healthcare system. Recognition of the responsibility of individuals for their own health and awareness that professional care for minor ailments is often unnecessary has contributed to this view. Improvements in people’s general knowledge, level of education and socioeconomic status in many countries form a reasonable basis for successful self-medication.”
The International Federation of Pharmacists (FIP): “Nowadays people are keen to accept more personal responsibility for their health status and to obtain as much sound information as possible in order to help them make appropriate decisions in health care…Pharmacists and the manufacturers of nonprescription medicines share the common goals of providing high quality service to the public and encouraging the responsible use of medicines.”
The International Council of Nurses (ICN): “Self-medication is a key component of self-care that is particularly significant in an era of increasing chronic illness and well-informed health care consumers. Optimising responsible self-medication is an important and underused resource for health and provides an opportunity for collaboration and consultation among consumers, nurses, pharmacists and physicians.”
What is self-care and how does it differ from responsible self-medication?
Self-care is a lifelong habit and culture. It is the action individuals take for themselves and their families to stay healthy and manage minor and chronic conditions, based on their knowledge and the information available, working in collaboration with healthcare professionals where necessary.
Self-care therefore includes many elements other than responsible self-medication, such as making healthy lifestyle choices or self-recognition, self-monitoring and self-management of symptoms or disease, either alone or in partnership with healthcare professionals or other people with the same condition.
In reality, self-care is the foundation in the pyramid of healthcare. If an average healthy person visits a doctor say 9 times in a year, with a total of 1.5 hours of discussion, the remaining 8758.5 hours of the year are self-care…
What’s new about self-care?
Self-care is not new. Before the 19th century, and still the case in emerging societies, self-care and self-medication with home remedies was the norm. Health systems are a modern invention.
What’s new today is our understanding of the causes of diseases and how to prevent or cure them. Self-care has a particular role to play in the prevention and management of non communicable chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases.
Additionally, economic pressures with people living longer lives, today’s modern technologies – including OTC medicines-, and patients and consumers interest in health all contribute to the resurgence of self-care.