Supplemental Content: Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches

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   Saving on and with OTC Medications

Which would you rather pay for the same tablet: $0.157 or $0.008?

Saving ON over-the-counter medications:
We all know the cost of prescription medications adds up quickly, but have you ever added up the cost of any over-the-counter meds you're using? They add up, too, but there are ways to keep those costs down. Those of us with headaches and Migraine have been targeted by the commercials for products such as Excedrin Migraine, Advil Migraine, and Excedrin Tension Headache. The different packaging isn't entirely the pharmaceutical companies' doing. If they want to advertise a current product for a condition other than those for which the FDA originally approved it, they have to submit new clinical trials for approval, the do new labeling and packaging. It's up to us to read the labels to see that those products aren't any different than some of the "standard" products; and the standard brand name products aren't any different than generic, store brands.
  1. Compare ingredients in "specialty" meds to the standard brand name meds. Then compare the prices. Although the manufacturers recommend the same retail price for the specialty OTC meds, such as Excedrin Migraine, some stores charge more for it.  Examples:
    • When you review the label, you'll find that each tablet of Excedrin Migraine contains the exact same ingredients as Extra Strength Excedrin:
      • 250 mg acetaminophen
      • 250 mg aspirin
      • 65 mg caffeine
    • When you take a close look at the label of Excedrin Tension Headache, you'll find that each caplet or geltab contains:
      • 500 mg acetaminophen
      • 65 mg caffeine
    • The label on Advil Migraine reveals it to contain the same ingredient as Advil Liqui-Gels:
      • Solubilized ibuprofen equal to 200 mg ibuprofen
  2. Compare the brand name products to store brands:
    • 250 mg acetaminophen, 250 mg aspirin, 65 mg caffeine:
      • Extra Strength Excedrin: 250 tablets, $ 13.69
      • CVS brand Added Strength Headache Relief coated tablets: 275 tablets, $ 8.29
    • 500 mg acetaminophen, 65 mg caffeine
      • Excedrin Tension Headache: 100 tablets, $9.49
      • CVS Non-Aspirin Solid Gelcaps Extra Strength: 100 gelcaps, $6.49*
    • 200 mg ibuprofen
      • Tylenol Liqui-Gels: 180 liqui-gels, $14.99
      • CVS brand tablets: 200 tablets, $9.00
  3. If you'll use it before the expiration date, buy the larger quantity:
    • CVS brand Headache Relief coated tablets:
      • 100 tablets, $5.49 = $0.05 per tablet
      • 275 tablets, $ 8.29 = $0.03 per tablet
    • CVS Non-Aspirin Solid Gelcaps Extra Strength:
      • 100 gelcaps, $6.49 = $0.065 per gelcap
      • 400 gelcaps, $15.33 - $0.038 per gelcap
    • CVS Ibuprofen Capsules, 200 mg:
      • 100 tablets, $6.99 = $0.069 per tablet
      • 750 tablets $17.99 = $0.024
  4. If you only find small quantities on the shelf, ask the pharmacist if he or she can get a larger quantity for you. For example: Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) are usually found on the pharmacy shelves in packages of 8 to 48 tablets or capsules. The Benadryl is blister packaged, which annoys many people. Both can be ordered by your pharmacist if not already in stock, and the prices will be much lower. I was paying $3.79 for 24 store brand diphenhydramine tablets, 25 mg each. When I asked our pharmacist, she was able to order a bottle of 100 for which we paid $3.61. Even better, we later found a bottle of 400 tablets at Sam's Club for $3.22.

Saving WITH over-the-counter medications:
Now, let's look at things from a slightly different angle. Do you take any prescription medications that could be safely and effectively replaced by over-the-counter medications? Some of the truly great prescription medications have now gone OTC -- Benadryl, Claratin, Tagamet, Zantac, Sudafed, and others.

Before your next visit to your doctor, do a bit of homework:

  1. Make a list of all your medications.
  2. Check to see of there are over-the-counter medications that you think might serve the same purpose. Maybe something you took in the past that worked well has gone OTC. You can also ask your pharmacist.
  3. Comparison shop to see how much you'd need to pay for the OTC medication.
  4. Compare the cost of the OTC medication to what you pay now for your prescription medication or your insurance copayment on that medication.
  5. If you think you'd save money substituting OTC meds for any of your prescriptions, take your findings to your doctor and ask his or her opinion.

Using the generic Benadryl from above, here's an example of how this can work out: I was taking a prescription antihistamine for allergies. A 90-day supply through our insurance company's mail order pharmacy cost $45. The generic Benadryl, diphenhydramine, works just as well for me, my doctor said it's fine, and a 90-day supply is less that $1.50. Why should I continue using a prescription medication? We can all think of better things to do with the $43.50 saved there.

Over-the-counter medications can play a prominent role in our treatment regimens. With a bit of investigating and comparison shopping, quite a bit of money can be saved on them. Additionally, prescription medications aren't always superior to OTC meds. If you think an OTC medication would work as well for you and be less expensive, ask your doctor. Health care costs are high enough for all of us that every bit we can save helps.

* To get the caffeine that's in the Excedrin Tension Headache, just add a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea.

All prices, unless otherwise noted, taken from the CVS Pharmacy web site for comparison purposes only. I have no affiliation with CVS.

Last Updated July 17, 2004

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