What are the classifications of medicines?

What are the classifications of medicines?

Medicines bring a great many benefits to us, not least the ability to resolve minor illnesses and address health complaints before things get worse. But if you’ve ever wondered why some medicines can be bought off the shelf while others require a doctor or pharmacist’s approval, it might interest you to learn the rules that control how drugs can be distributed to members of the public.

What is meant by medicine classification?

Put simply, medicine classification is the categorisation of drugs used by the UK Government in order to ensure the correct procedures are in place to prevent misuse of those drugs. Medicines are put into different categories based on the amount of involvement from a healthcare professional that is needed to diagnose and recommend a treatment for a condition[1]

In other words, if there’s a significant risk that having easy access to a given medicine would be dangerous – either from deliberate misuse or from taking the medicine after a wrongful self-diagnosis – sales of that medicine will be restricted. In practice, that usually means you’ll have to get a doctor or a pharmacist to agree that the medicine is right for you before you’ll be allowed to access it, and there may be fewer locations where your medicine can be bought.

Although it might seem inconvenient if you need a medicine but have to arrange a doctor’s appointment to get it, these rules are in place to keep you safe. Some medicines can have harmful side effects – especially if you don’t actually have the condition they’re designed to treat. Because of this, it pays to have a verified diagnosis to lower the risk of making things worse by taking medication. 

When classifying medicines according to these rules, a compromise is found between making it as quick and easy as possible to get hold of the medicine and reducing the risk of intentional or accidental misuse[1].

What are the 4 classifications of medicines?

In the UK, there are four medication categories. You might recognise them from medicines you or a loved one has had during a previous illness, or you might have heard of them in the news. Of the four categories, you’re most likely to have come across or taken medicines from the three least restricted categories, as the most restricted category is highly regulated. 

Controlled drugs

This is the most highly regulated medicine category used in the UK, made so because the drugs within it can be very dangerous. Illegal drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine and heroin come under this category[2]

However, not every controlled substance is an illegal high. Very strong medicines such as morphine are also classified as controlled substances due to the risk of serious health complications if taken without medical advice. For that reason, you can usually only access these medicines in a hospital under medical supervision. 

Prescription-only medicines (POM)

Prescription-only medicines are those that are only available to people who have a prescription for them from a registered doctor. While you need a doctor’s permission to access these medicines, you can pick them up from any pharmacy, and you don’t need medical supervision while you take them[1]

In many cases, prescription medicines are those that treat conditions best managed by a doctor[1]. This includes conditions that need monitoring but don’t require a hospital stay, such as high or low blood pressure. 

In addition to this, medicines that could be dangerous to have in public circulation are classed as prescription-only[1]. For instance, if you could buy antibiotics from any shop, it’s likely that people would overuse them, leading to the rise of antibiotic resistance. To prevent this, you need a doctor’s prescription to have antibiotics and your doctor may try other treatment methods first.

Additionally, in some circumstances, your pharmacist may be able to prescribe medicines, meaning you wouldn’t have to visit your GP[3]. The NHS states that pharmacists who are qualified and registered as Independent Prescribers or Supplementary Prescribers can prescribe medicines. To find out if your local pharmacist offers this service, get in touch with the pharmacy and ask them how they can help you access the medicine you need. 

Pharmacy medicines (P)

Pharmacy or pharmacy-only medicines are medications that you can buy from any pharmacy without a prescription, but you have to have the pharmacist’s approval. These medicines are usually stored behind the counter in the shop, so the pharmacist is aware you’re buying them. Your pharmacist may ask questions about your condition to help determine whether you’ve chosen the right medicine for you – and if they don’t think you have, they can refuse to sell you the medicine[1]

One example of a pharmacy-only medicine is emergency contraception. This is because the pharmacist has to check you’re not using it inappropriately, and it also gives the pharmacist an opportunity to provide contraceptive advice where needed. Other medicines that require a pharmacist’s approval include stronger versions of medicines you can buy anywhere – like Chloralieve’s soothing honey and lemon throat lozenges. These contain local anaesthetic and two antiseptic compounds to fight off a throat infection. 

General sales list (GSL)

General sales list medicines are those that you can buy from most supermarkets and other shops, such as Ultra Chloraseptic’s numbing throat spray, which uses anaesthetic to ease the pain of a sore throat. These medicines are stored on the shop shelves and are usually intended for the treatment of minor, short-term illnesses such as coughs and colds[1]. Although GSL medicines are considered to be safe enough for anyone to buy, this doesn’t mean there are no instructions for consumers to follow. These should be easy to find on the medicine’s packaging. In some cases, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, there may be restrictions on pack size and how many you can buy in one go.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/medicines-reclassify-your-product

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/controlled-drugs-list–2/list-of-most-commonly-encountered-drugs-currently-controlled-under-the-misuse-of-drugs-legislation

[3] https://faq.nhsbsa.nhs.uk/knowledgebase/article/KA-01426/en-us