Over the counter

The French philosopher Voltaire is believed to have written:

Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, for human beings of which they know nothing.”

I was at a party in Athens, Greece, in the early 1980s when I suddenly became aware of bilateral back pain and nausea. Luckily, there was a medical doctor amongst the guests. He diagnosed a kidney or bladder infection and wrote a prescription for bactrim. The tablets were very effective and rapid acting.

A year or so later, I was flying to Greece via Rome in Italy when I experienced a recurrence of the symptoms. As I had quite a long stopover in Rome, I took the opportunity to visit a pharmacy, but this time without a prescription. To my great surprise and relief, the pharmacist sold me some bactrim without requiring a prescription.

In the UK, it is not possible to obtain antibiotics and most other medications without a prescription. There are also rules determining how much non prescription medication can be bought at any one time.

In India, which I visit often, I have never been asked for a prescription to obtain any kind of medication. One just asks for the medicine or tablets required, and then following payment they are handed over the counter. Quite a few of the medications I have needed in India have been clearly marked as prescription only medicines, but these words are ignored by the pharmacy salespeople.

Having been trained as a dentist I have some knowledge of pharmacology. So, I feel that I am unlikely to abuse the ease of obtaining medicines in India, but I worry about others with less knowledge than me.

The freedom of being able to obtain medications without having to first get a prescription has mixed blessings. On the one hand, if you are certain that you need a particular drug or simply need a repeat of what you have been taking, not needing a prescription can save you time and money that visiting a doctor entails. On the other hand, self diagnosis and self treatment is not without risk.

What Voltaire wrote many years ago is less true today than it was then. But, still, even after so many advances have been made in medical science , a great deal of ignorance about the human body remains.