Medicine schedules & availability

This article has been updated since its original release. [Details]

When a medicine is approved for sale in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decides how freely it should be available — for example, on prescription only, pharmacy only or sold in supermarkets. In general, the safer the medicine, and the more minor the condition it is approved to treat, the more freely the medicine is available (although there are some exceptions to this). A few other factors are also important.

Should a medicine be prescription only, pharmacy only, or available anywhere? These points help the TGA decide:

  • safety of the medicine
  • seriousness of the condition it is meant or approved to be used for
  • effects when used correctly
  • side effects
  • likelihood of accidental or deliberate misuse
  • effects if taken accidentally by children
  • effects of taking an overdose
  • potential for people to become dependent on it
  • benefits of making it easily available

Bear in mind that non-prescription medicines can also have side effects and interact with your other medicines. Some non-prescription medicines have specific rules about their availability:

  • Pharmacist-only medicines are stored behind the pharmacist’s counter. You can buy them only after talking to a pharmacist to make sure they are appropriate and safe for you.
  • Pharmacy-only medicines are stored on the open shelves in pharmacies. You do not have to seek advice from a pharmacist before buying them, but if you want advice you can ask for it.

Non-prescription medicines that do not fall into either of these categories can be sold in supermarkets, grocery stores, and health food stores as well as pharmacies. Complementary medicines are in this group.

In some cases, the amount of medicine in a packet may affect where and how it can be sold. As a result, small packets of some medicines are available in supermarkets and other retail outlets, but packets containing more tablets, or higher doses of the same medicine are available only in pharmacies. For example, supermarkets can sell paracetamol in packets of 20 tablets or less. However, packets of more than 20 tablets can be sold only in pharmacies.

Categories of medicines and where you can get them

When a medicine is approved for sale in Australia, it will be available in one of the following categories. These categories correspond to Government ‘Schedule’ levels (a national classification system that controls how medicines are made available to the public).

For more information, see TGA: Scheduling of medicines and poisons

Available for general sale
Can be sold in supermarkets, grocery stores, health food stores as well as pharmacies, with labels about safe use if neededCough and cold remedies, non-prescription pain relief such as aspirin and paracetamol, vitamins, herbal supplements
Pharmacy medicine
(Schedule 2)
Available on the shelf at pharmacies. A pharmacist or pharmacy assistant must be available for advice if requiredDiarrhoea medicines, antihistamines
Pharmacist-only medicine
(Schedule 3)
Only available behind the counter at a pharmacy, but no prescription required. A pharmacist must be consultedHydrocortisone cream for skin irritations, some asthma inhalers, emergency contraceptive pill
Prescription-only medicine (Schedule 4)Must be prescribed by an authorised healthcare professional. May be supplied in hospital or purchased from a pharmacy with a prescriptionContraceptive pills, antibiotics, strong pain relievers, heart and cholesterol medicines
Controlled drug
(Schedule 8)
Must be prescribed by an authorised healthcare professional, who may need another permit to prescribe these medicines. May be supplied in hospital or purchased from a pharmacy with a prescription.Very strong pain relief medicines (eg, morphine), medicines used to treat drug dependence (eg, methadone)

For more information

Revision history

Updated 19 November 2015 to reflect changes made by TGA in September 2013.
First published: 25 October 2012