Legal medications and your health

There are two major types of medicines - prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines.

Prescription drugs

The medications a doctor prescribes for you are called prescription drugs. You can only pick these up at a pharmacy.

Over-the-counter medicines

Over-the-counter medicines do not need a doctor's prescription and can be bought at a grocery or convenience store.

It is important to remember that over-the-counter products include many different substances such as vitamins and minerals, herbal and dietary supplements, laxatives, cold medicines and antacids.

Combining medicines

Any combination of prescription drugs and over-the-counter substances can interact with each other to cause unexpected or unwanted effects. It is important to keep a list of all prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies you take.

Benefits and risks of legal medications

All medicines have risks as well as benefits.

The benefits of medicines are that they can improve your health and wellbeing by treating a disease, curing an infection or relieving pain.

The risks are the chances that something unwanted or unexpected will happen when you use medicines.

Unwanted or unexpected symptoms or feelings that happen when you take medicine are called side effects. These can be minor, such as a headache or a dry mouth. But they can also be life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or irreversible damage to the liver or kidneys.

Consumer medicine information

All prescription medicines have an information leaflet called Consumer Medicine Information (CMI). The content of this leaflet includes important information you need to know before, during and after taking the medicine, including how to use it, side effects and precautions.

You can get a free CMI leaflet from your pharmacist or doctor, or sometimes it is inside the medicine packaging. To read CMIs online go to the Better Health Channel website or the NPS Medicinewise website.

If you're not sure about what information you have, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Information in the CMI can be different to the label on your medicine. Make sure you take your medicine exactly as prescribed and talk to your prescriber if you have any concerns.

Read carefully through the list of possible side effects. For more information speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

Drinking alcohol with some medicines can also cause unwanted and sometimes dangerous side effects. These effects include drowsiness with antihistamines or antidepressant medicines. This can be very important for drivers.

About 20% of Australians are believed to take complementary medicines and pharmaceutical medicines at the same time. This increases the risk of side effects, because the active ingredients in the different medicines can clash.

Where to get help

If you're worried about side effects to medicine or you are experiencing unwanted symptoms from medicine you can get help from:

  • your doctor
  • your pharmacist
  • Adverse Medicines Events (AME) - to report a problem with your medicine call 1300 134 237
  • Medicines - for information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines call 1300 633 424
  • Victorian Poisons Information Centre - for advice about poisonings, suspected poisonings, bites and stings, mistakes with medicines and poisoning prevention call the 24 hour helpline: 13 11 26
  • in an emergency call 000.

Print all pages in this section

Last updated: 17 July 2017