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Special report Over-the-counter savings

You can save big by buying off-brand and store-brand drugs.

Cut nonprescription drug costs

Buy drugs at discount prices

On crowded drugstore shelves, over-the-counter drug brands, such as Tylenol, Advil and NyQuil, get the biggest play and the most shopping dollars.

But for the average consumer, brand names often aren't the best choice. They usually cost considerably more than off-brand drugs, which contain identical active ingredients and are just as strictly regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Off-brand or store-brand OTC drugs exist in most categories where there are brand-name over-the-counter drugs. From pain relief to heartburn to cold remedies, there are most likely several store-brand and off-brand alternatives to choose from.

Saving on drug costs
Consumers can save by buying off-brand and store-brand drugs with the same active ingredients as the name brands.
1. Identical ingredients
2. Same factory, different box
3. Read the label
4. Where to shop
5. Combination medications

OTC medications must, like prescription drugs, be approved by the FDA, which periodically will switch certain medications from prescription-only to nonprescription status.

Drugs available over the counter need no physician's prescription, although they do contain guidelines for use and information on possible interactions with other over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Recent medications that have become over the counter include Claritin, Prilosec and Zyrtec.

The FDA is pushing for more consumer access to drugs by switching selected medications from prescription to over-the-counter status. When available over the counter, drugs can be more expensive for consumers who have insurance than when they were available as prescription drugs with a co-pay.

The rising number of drugs available over the counter is all the more reason why consumers should pay more attention to price and favor lower-cost, off-brand drugs, says Steve Findlay at Consumers Union, the consumer advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports.

"There is no reason why a consumer should pay more for a brand name drug than for an off-brand with identical ingredients," says Findlay.

Identical ingredients
Due to the marketing muscle of the large consumer products companies that manufacture brand-name drugs such as Benadryl, Zantac and Cortaid, many consumers harbor the mistaken notion that such brands are safer and more reliable than their off-brand siblings.

Not so, says Findlay, who notes that "the same regulations apply to the manufacturers of off-brand, over-the-counter medications as apply to brand medications. The FDA regulates both in a fairly rigorous way."

-- Posted: Sept. 28, 2007
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