When a medicine is approved for sale in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decides how freely it should be available: for instance, prescription-only, pharmacy-only or sold in supermarkets. Government ‘Schedule’ levels are a national classification system that controls how medicines are made available to the public.
| Category |
| Rules || Examples |
Available for general sale
Can be sold in supermarkets, grocery stores, health food stores as well as pharmacies, with labels about safe use if needed
Cough and cold remedies, non-prescription pain relief such as aspirin and paracetamol, vitamins, herbal supplements
| Pharmacy medicine |
| Available on the shelf at pharmacies. A pharmacist or pharmacy assistant must be available for advice if required || Diarrhoea medicines, antihistamines |
| Pharmacist-only medicine |
| Only available behind the counter at a pharmacy, but no prescription required. A pharmacist must be consulted || Hydrocortisone 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 prescription
| Contraceptive pills, antibiotics, strong pain relievers, heart and cholesterol medicines |
| Controlled drug |
| 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) |
In general (though not always), the safer the medicine, and the more minor the condition it is approved to treat, the more freely the medicine is available. A few other factors are also important.
The TGA must consider:
- 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.
Remember 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 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, are available only in pharmacies – thus, supermarkets can sell paracetamol in packets of 20 tablets or less, but packets of more than 20 tablets can be sold only in pharmacies.
For more information, see TGA: Scheduling of medicines and poisons.