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Home > Managing Your Medications > Know your Medicines

Know Your Medicines

Many of us take medicines and supplements every day. It is important to know as much as possible about the medications and supplements we take including its purpose, ingredients, side effects, and potential interactions with other medications and supplements.

Types of Medicine

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicine

An OTC medicine is the kind you buy off the shelf without a doctor’s order (prescription.) Such as:

  • Pain and fever medicine
  • Cold medicine

Prescription medicine can only be ordered by a licensed medical professional and must be filled by a pharmacist. Prescription medicine is intended for a specific patient and cannot be legally shared with others.

Dietary supplements

Dietary supplements may contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other ingredients. Like OTC medicines, dietary supplements can be bought off the shelf without a doctor’s order. They can come in the form of tablets, capsules, liquids, or powders. But dietary supplements are not OTC medicines. OTC medicines have Drug Facts labels. Dietary supplements have Supplement Facts labels.

There are different kinds of dietary supplements including:

  • Vitamin & mineral supplements. Vitamin and mineral supplements are a type of dietary supplement containing micronutrients that the body needs for growth, digestion, nerve function, energy production and cellular repair.
  • Herbal supplements. Herbal supplements have a medicinal purpose. Herbal supplements generally support a specific area of the body’s health, such as the liver, bones or skin.

"Alternative" medicine is any therapy used to treat illness that is outside the realm of conventional medical therapies.

Active ingredients in Medicines

An active ingredient is what makes the drug work. There may be more than one active ingredient in a product and the same active ingredient may be in many different kinds of medicines. For example, aspirin and acetaminophen are active ingredients in many common pain relievers. The active ingredient is always the first item on the Drug Facts label, so be sure to check the label first!

TIP: Use a Medication Tracking Card

Medication Tracking Card


Print out this card and write down important information about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter and prescription medicines, vitamins, supplements and alternative therapies. Update the list when you add, stop or change medicines. Bring it with you when you visit your doctor or pharmacist. If you need more space, print out as many copies of this card as you need.

Page updated: October 4th, 2011


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