Why you’re paying too much for medication

How to find cheaper alternatives for pills and drugs that do the same job.

When you’ve got a cold, you’ll ask for Lemsip. When you’ve got a headache, you’ll ask for Nurofen. When you’ve got a hangover, you’ll ask for a Berocca.

Yes they cost more than own brand, but surely that’s because they’re better at making you feel better?

Well, it turns out there’s little or no difference between many similar medications. In truth you’re usually paying over the odds for name recognition. And this isn’t the only time you might be paying more than you need on medication and prescriptions.

To help you make a decision that’s good for you’re wallet as well as your health, I’ve taken a look at some of the ways you spend too much on medications and how to save some cash.

Off-the-shelf medication

Branded medicine is one of the biggest rip-offs we fall for. The vast bulk of the time the ingredients used to make the tablet, cream or sachet are pretty much the same as those cheaper alternatives on the shelf below.

There might be slight variations, but it’s unlikely they are enough to make a difference to your ailment.

You might also have to hunt for these cheaper options, generally hidden on lower shelves with the big brands at eyeline and easy to grab.

Here are a few examples I found:

Lemsip vs own brand cold

In Boots a pack of 10 Lemsip Max sachets will set you back £4.79. The own-brand alternative is just £2.99, saving you £1.80. The ingredients are almost exactly the same.

Nurofen vs own brand ibuprofen

Worse is ibuprofen. Standard Nurofen costs £2.29 for 16 tablets in Boots. The own-brand version is £1.69. But better still is the non-branded value pack at just 55p. And they all contain the same simple ingredient: 200g of Ibuprofen.

The only difference is likely to be in the coating, which won’t make a difference to the effectiveness of the pain relief.

Berocca vs own brand effervescent

Berocca meanwhile costs £5 for 15 tablets. The Boots own brand equivalent of the effervescent multivitamin is £4.19 for 20 tablets. That’s 21p per tablet rather than 33p for pretty much the same thing. In fact since the Boots tablets are bigger you actually get slightly higher doses of each vitamin.

Watch this video where I share how to see if items are the same or similar

Same products, different packaging

You can even find some products which are exactly the same! In my mini-investigation (i.e. trying to subtly take photos of packaging in Boots) I found an example where the tablets in different packaging were the very same.

Both Panadol Extra Advance and Panadol Period Pain are the same product. They have literally just been put in different coloured packs (you’ve guessed, it’s pink for the period painkiller).

The way to tell is to look for the product line code. This is the letters PL followed by some numbers. If the code is identical then so is the medication.

Now, these two Panadol items should therefore cost the same, right? Well there’s a 10p difference at Boots (surprisingly it’s the one aimed at women which is cheaper). Ok not much money but you get the idea.

And bigger savings are likely to be found when comparing own brand versions of meds in different shops. It’s possible that you might find the exact same formulation at a far lower price.

I also found that the Boots, Tesco and Asda cold and flu items had exactly the same PL number but at varying costs. So exactly the same item made in the same factory!

I think it also raises a question as to whether these targeted meds are actually anything other than marketing. You could well be better off with the standard version.

NHS Prescriptions

It’s also possible to save money on prescriptions in England. Prescriptions normally cost £9.35, but some can get them for free, including those under 16 years old, over 60 or 16-18 in full-time education. There are other groups too, mainly those receiving some form of benefit.

If you have an ongoing condition then it’s worth buying a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC). You can get “unlimited” prescriptions (as long as the doctor gives the prescription) for a set price. This varies depending on how many items you require

The three-month certificate costs £30.25 and the annual one £108.10. You’ll save money if you order three items over three months, or have more than 11 prescriptions in a year,

The savings could be even bigger if you have multiple presecriptions. The NHS gives these examples of the savings you could make:

  • 2 items a month will save £116.30 a year
  • 3 items a month will save £228.50 a year
  • 4 items a month will save £340.70 a yar

Or of course you could just move to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland where prescriptions are free on the NHS!

Private prescriptions

In the past I was lucky enough to have Bupa private healthcare through work, but I’ve also had the misfortune to need to use it a few times over the years.

What you don’t get with private treatment is an NHS prescription for any medication you need – and the shocking prices charged for those drugs is another reason the NHS is so important.

In part it’s because private hospitals and pharmacies are making a tidy profit, but it’s also because the NHS can subsidise some really expensive medication.

So, if you balk at the price of those tablets – it’s worth seeing your GP and asking if they could prescribe you the same or similar on the NHS. Doing this a few years back saved me hundreds of pounds.

Of course there is a flip side to the flat rate NHS prescription. If you can buy it over the counter it might actually be cheaper!

5 thoughts on “Why you’re paying too much for medication

  1. The “targeted” painkillers are purely marketing. There was a BBC report on this a while back.

    Also – Morrisons MAX strength cold/flu sachets are £2 for 10. They’re the cheapest Lemsip alternatives I’ve found and work just as well.

    If in doubt, just look at the active ingredient, name and % on the branded item, and compare with the unbranded one.

  2. 5 Lemsip £1 in poundland so lemsip could be cheaper

    1. Oh that’s a good spot!

  3. Totally agree with this and your last point-a responsible GP would tell you it is cheaper to buy over the counter than prescription if that’s the case. Another group entitled to free prescriptions is women whilst pregnant up the point of the child turning one year old so get stocked up on any repeat medication like I did on inhalers and time your dental appointments accordingly to get the most free ones you can during this period!

    1. Good thinking on stockpiling Hollie!

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