How do I buy medicine? What is a prescription?

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Your body is great at fending off sickness and pain, but sometimes rest and recovery isn’t enough. Medicine is great at helping you get better fast. Some medicine you can purchase at any drugstore or pharmacy. Others, you need a prescription for. A prescription is a note written by a doctor that allows you to receive medicine or treatment. Read this guide article to find out more.

How do I purchase medicine?

The Basics

There are two types of medicine: prescription, and non-prescription, also known as over-the counter medicine. Over-the-counter medicine usually solves minor problems and can be purchased without a prescription. It’s helpful to keep a supply of non-prescription medicine at home. You can find many of them stocked in the aisles of drugstores.  Some non-prescription brands are:

  • Tylenol, Advil, Aleve (used for pain and fever)
  • Polysporin (used to relieve and treat wounds)
  • Pepto Bismol (used for diarrhea, nausea, and upset stomachs)
  • Benadryl (used for coughs and colds)
  • Claritin (used for allergies)
  • Aspirin (used for headaches and migraines)
  • Halls (used for sore throats)

Find a full list here.

Speak with your doctor before taking over-the-counter medicine if you:

  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • have a long-term medical problem or are already taking prescription medicine
  • are not sure what is wrong with you
Purchasing Non-Prescription (Over-the-counter) Medicine

Keep these tips in mind when purchasing over-the-counter medicine:

  • Always follow the printed directions and warnings.
  • Look at the list of ingredients and choose products that have fewer items listed.
  • Check the expiration date before using any product.
  • Store medicines in a cool, dry area. Keep all medicines out of the reach of children.
  • Medicine affects children and older adults differently. People in these age groups should be careful when taking over-the-counter medication.
  • If your symptoms are very bad or serious, speak with your doctor.
The Basics

To get a prescription, you must visit a doctor. Sometimes, a doctor will give you a prescription after determining the best way to treat your symptoms. This is common for infections, mental illnesses, and other conditions. Other times, you must request the prescription yourself. This is common for birth control and other medicine.

Things to Know

When getting a prescription, it is very important to be honest with your doctor. Let them know if you are taking any other medications. Sometimes, one medication might cause problems for another (an interaction). Interactions can threaten your health by causing side effects or making medicine less effective. It is better to be safe rather than sorry.

Everything you say in the doctor’s office is confidential, so don’t be shy about asking questions or sharing information with your doctor. Your doctor can write a prescription in a number of ways:

  1. Write or print out and sign a paper prescription for you to take.
  2. Call or e-mail a pharmacy to order the medicine for you.
  3. Send the prescription to a pharmacy by linking to your electronic medical record.
The Basics

When you go to use a prescription, it’s called “filling” a prescription. Only a pharmacy can fill a prescription for you. It is best to fill your medicine prescriptions at the same pharmacy, so they can keep an accurate record for you. A list of pharmacies in Calgary can be found here.

To fill a prescription, visit the pharmacy of your choice in person. Give them your prescription or tell them that your doctor has sent it to the pharmacy. You may be asked to show I.D. (like a health card or driver’s license) at some point. Preparing a prescription can take 15 minutes, or longer. You will be alerted when the prescription medicine is ready for pickup. Read the next section to learn about paying for your medicine.

Refilling a Prescription

To buy prescription medicine, you don’t always need to visit your doctor first. If the medicine is for a chronic (ongoing) or long-term condition, your doctor can arrange for refills. A refill is an extra instruction your doctor can add to your prescriptions. If you have a refill, it means you can return to the pharmacy to get your medicine refilled without a prescription. There a number of ways to get a refill:

  1. Visit in person, as you would to fill a prescription for the first time.
  2. Call the pharmacy and follow the instructions on refilling your prescription medicine.
  3. Use the internet. Some pharmacies have options for filling prescriptions online. Ask your pharmacist for more information.

Things will go a lot smoother if you keep track of the information on your medication bottle (ie. your name, the prescription number, and the name of the medicine).

The Basics

To pay for prescription medicine, you can either:

  1. Pay for it out of pocket. That is, cover it yourself.
  2. Allow insurance to cover the prescription cost through a health plan.

The first option is not recommended as medicine can be quite expensive. Health plans are offered both by employers and the government. Before you fill the prescription, ask your doctor if your plan covers it. Your doctor may have to contact the insurance company to get coverage approved.

Please note that insurance rarely covers the full cost of medicine. You will likely have to pay for some of it yourself.

You can read more about drug coverage and health plans in Alberta here.

CIES Guides are a volunteer-led project made possible through contributions from the community.

Thanks to Asantewa Nkuah for help with this guide. If you want to suggest a correction to this guide, or want to submit one of your own, please contact us.

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