This page explains the different types of medicine, the difference between branded drugs and generics, and how the medicines become available.

Which medicines can I buy without prescription?

Some medicines for minor illnesses can be bought over the counter without a prescription, so you can treat yourself without needing to see a GP.

Simple painkillers and cough remedies, for example, can be bought directly from supermarkets and other stores.

Other types of medicine, such as eye drops or emergency contraception, are available without prescription but need a pharmacist's supervision, so are only available to buy from behind the pharmacy counter.

Prescription-only medicines, such as antibiotics, must be prescribed by a qualified health professional.

This may be a GP, hospital doctor, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, optometrist, physiotherapist or podiatrist.

Buying medicines online

You can also buy medicines over the internet.  But be very careful if you do this, as many websites sell fake medicines.

Online medicines aren't regulated and ingredients in them can vary.  They may cause unpleasant side effects or may not be suitable for you.

It's best to see your GP before buying medicines online as they know your medical history and can advise you whether the medicine would be suitable.

If you choose to buy medicines online, ensure that:

Brand names versus generics

Many medicines have at least two different names:

  • the brand name - created by the pharmaceutical company that made the medicine
  • the generic name - the name of the active ingredient in the medicine

For example, sildenafil is the generic name of a medicine used to treat erectile dysfunction.  But the company that makes sildenafil, Pfizer, sells it under the brand name Viagra.

Companies take out exclusive rights called patents on each new drug they discover.  If a company has a patnet on a drug, only that company can market it under their brand name once it has been granted a licence.

Once the patent expires, other manufacturers can market generic versions.  The generic versions will be the same as the branded medicine because they contain the same active ingredients,

They are used more often by the NHS because they're just as effective but cost far less.  It's similar to buying branded goods or a supermarket's own label - the supermarket's version is usually cheaper.

If the name of your prescription medicine keeps changing, it might be because you're being given the generic version rather than the branded one.

How new medicines become available

Licensed medicines

Before any new medicine can be used to treat people in the UK, it goes through a strictly monitored development process.

This involves researching the medicine in the lab and testing it in clinical trials.  After passing the clinical trials, a license will be granted before it can be made available for wider use.

Read more about clinical trials.

Licences are only granted if strict safety and quality standards are met. In the UK, licences are granted by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Licences confirm the health condition the medicine should be used for an the recommended dosage.

This can be found in the information leaflet that comes with the medicine.  The dosage instructions are usually on the label of the medicine packet.

Unlicensed medicines

Sometimes a healthcare professional may recommend that you take an off-label or unlicensed medicine.

Off-label use meals that the medicine isn't licensed for treatment of your condition.  But the medicine will have a licence to treat another condition and will have undergone clinical trials for this.

Your doctor may recommend an unlicensed medication if they think it will treat your condition effectively and the benefits are greater than any risks.

Safety of medicines

No medicine is completely risk free, but the MHRA and EMA try to ensure any medicine approved for treating people in the UK is as safe as possible.

Medicines continue to be carefully regulated after they've been licensed.  This involves checking for problems and previously unknown side effects.

In rare cases, medicines may be withdrawn if there are serious safety concerns or the risks of the medicines outweigh the benefits.

You can help the MHRA monitor the safety of medicines by reporting any suspected side effects to the Yellow Card Scheme.  Reports can also be made on behalf of someone you're caring for.


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Medicines Supply

Continuity of Medicine Supply: Frequently Asked Questions

Will I still be able to get my prescription medicines and medical products?

Yes. The UK Government is working closely with the NHS and suppliers to make sure medicines and medical products continue to be available in all scenarios. Occasionally, however, the NHS does experience temporary shortages of specific medicines. If this happens, you will be prescribed the best alternative to your usual medication as is normal. This will ensure that your treatment continues as normal.

If there are any shortages of medicines after EU exit, your doctor or pharmacist will advise you of the best alternative to treat your condition, as they would for any medicine shortage.  This will typically be a different brand of medicine or perhaps a lower strength medicine to make up the same dose. On rare occasions, it may mean a different medicine to do the same thing, but prescribers will be supported on how best to do that should it be necessary.

Should I keep ordering my repeat prescriptions and taking my medicines as normal?

Yes. There is no need to change the way that you order prescriptions or take your medicines. Always follow the advice of GPs and other health professionals who prescribe your medicines and medical products. There are enough medicines and medical products to meet current needs but if patients order extra prescriptions, or stockpile, it will put pressure on stocks, meaning that some patients may not get the medicines they need.

Should I ask my GP for a larger or longer prescription?

No. GPs will continue to prescribe medicines and medical products as normal.

Will I still get my medicine if I am on a clinical trial?

The NHS and the UK Government are working with organisations running clinical trials to ensure that research continues as normal in the coming months.  They have encouraged these organisations to consider their supply chains for clinical trials, and to ensure appropriate supplies of trial drugs and medical products are in place.

Will any routine NHS operations be cancelled?

Planning for EU exit has been developed in partnership between the UK Government and the NHS to try and make sure that there is as little impact upon the NHS as possible. The NHS will make every effort to prioritise care for patients in emergencies and minimise disruption to routine patient care.

What is being done to make sure medicines and medical products continue to be available?

The Welsh Government (WG) has been working closely with the NHS, pharmaceutical companies, suppliers of medical devices, and supply chains to make sure medicines and medical products continue to be available in the event of a no deal EU exit.

Since 2018, the Welsh Government, alongside the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), has been working with all pharmaceutical companies that supply prescription-only medicines and pharmacy medicines to the UK that come from, or through, the EU or European Economic Area (EEA). Companies were asked to ensure they have extra stocks available in the UK by 12 April 2019.

Where these medicines have a short shelf life, companies have been asked to ensure that they can fly these medicines in from the EU in the event of no deal. The NHS Supply Chain organisation is holding extra stocks of medical products.

To ensure that there will be enough space available for extra stocks of medicines and medical products, the UK Government has secured extra warehouse space including refrigerated and controlled drug storage that companies can use to store products.

The UK Government has also put in place extra shipping for suppliers to use on a variety of routes to ease pressure on the short straits crossings to Dover and Folkestone. This includes capacity on ferries to Poole, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Immingham and Felixstowe. The Government has agreed that medicines and medical products will be prioritised on these alternative routes.

What medicines and medical products are being included in the stockpiles?

The stockpiling programme is for medicines and medical products that would require a prescription or that you would usually get under supervision from a pharmacist, and that are either made in the EU or contain ingredients or components that are made in the EU.

Will information about specific medicines and medical products be made available?

The NHS and WG will be monitoring the medicines and medical products supply chain very carefully and we have well-established mechanisms to deal with supply issues when they do arise.

WG circulates regular updates about supply issues affecting medicines used in primary care and secondary care to the NHS. WG also liaises with specialist clinical groups, patient groups and other relevant networks to share information about supply issues that may affect specific patient groups.

There are existing systems in place to cascade messages quickly to the NHS and others for patient safety alerts, important public health messages and other safety critical information and guidance. If a specific medicine shortage emerges then prescribers and pharmacies will be quickly alerted to the situation and advised accordingly.

What about over-the-counter medicines and medical products?

Pharmacy medicines, which can be bought over the counter from a pharmacy, are covered in our stockpiling plans. General sales medicines and medical products, which can be sold in general retail outlets without the supervision of a pharmacist, are not included in this stockpiling work because there are multiple alternatives available should any one of these medicines or medical products be subject to a short-term supply disruption.

What about the supply of blood and blood products?

There are some medicines that are derived from blood plasma such as immunoglobulin, albumin, and clotting factors. As these are licensed medicines, they are included in the medicine supply plans.

The United Kingdom is largely self-sufficient in blood and blood components and does not routinely export or import these products, except for relatively small quantities of plasma which are imported by NHS Blood and Transplant for use in those born after 1996 as an agreed safety measure.

In very special cases NHS Blood and Transplant do export or import very rare blood for urgent clinical need, usually in single unit quantities.  WG is working closely with NHS Blood and Transplant, which is leading on the contingency planning for blood and blood components to ensure continuity of a safe blood supply.

What about vaccines?

Public Health Wales (PHW) manages significant stockpiles of vaccines for the national immunisation programme, as part of their business as usual planning. It is working closely with vaccine suppliers to ensure replenishment of these existing stockpiles continues in the event of supply disruption in the UK, for example, agreeing increases in a supplier’s own UK stockpiles.

WG is also working to ensure that there are sufficient stockpiles of vaccines for other NHS and non-NHS uses - i.e. uses outside of the national vaccination programmes such as for travel and occupational health purposes - within its medicines contingency programme.

What about unlicensed medicines and specials?

Unlicensed and specialist suppliers have been asked to ensure that by 12 April 2019 they have a minimum of six weeks’ additional supply in the UK in case of a no deal scenario. Other suppliers are also being contacted. In addition, unlicensed medicines and specials manufacturers are working to ensure there are sufficient ingredients in the UK to ensure continuity of supply. As with other medicines, unlicensed medicines will be prioritised in the UK Government’s agreed alternative supply routes.


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Selected links

NHS 111 Wales links




External Links

MHRA: how we regulate

Yellow Card Scheme

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website nhs.uk
Last Updated: 04/02/2020 09:27:20