After Norgestrel, Which Other Drugs Should Go OTC?

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first over-the-counter (OTC) norgestrel birth control pill (Opill). The daily oral contraceptive was approved for prescription use five decades ago, providing regulators with a half-century of data to show that the progestin-only drug can be used safely without a prescription. 

The drug is the latest in a series of medications that have made the switch from behind the pharmacy counter to retail shelves. 

Experts say several more classes of drugs to treat high cholesterol, asthma, and other common health problems could be next. 

Why Switch?

When a drug manufacturer submits a proposal for a switch to OTC, the key question that the FDA considers is patient safety. Some risks can be mitigated by approving OTC drugs at lower doses than what is available as the prescription version. 

“There is no drug that doesn’t have risks,” said Almut Winterstein, RPh, PhD, a distinguished professor in pharmaceutical outcomes and policy and director of the Center of Drug Evaluation and Safety at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “Risks are mitigated by putting specific constraints around access to those medications.”

Winterstein, a former chair of the FDA’s Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee, said that nonprescription drugs are unnecessary in a functional healthcare system. 

Many patients may struggle with accessing health clinicians, so making medications available OTC fills gaps left by not being able to get a prescription, according to Winterstein. 

A 2012 paper funded by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the organization representing manufacturers and distributors of OTC medications, estimated that one quarter of people who bought OTC drugs would not otherwise seek treatment if these treatments were only available via prescription. The CHPA notes that the number of those who experience allergies who use nonprescription antihistamines and allergy-relief drugs increased by about 10% between 2009 and 2015. 

Cholesterol Drugs

Approximately 80 million US adults are eligible for cholesterol-lowering medications, particularly statins, but nearly half don’t take them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Fear of side effects is the most common reason people might avoid taking these drugs. But eliminating the need for a refill may encourage uptake of the statins. 

“It’s refill, refill, refill,” said Allen J. Taylor, MD, chairman of cardiology at MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, in Washington, DC “We spend a ton of time refilling statins and it’s a headache for patients, too.” 

The need to secure regular prescriptions for the drug, “doesn’t put enough trust and faith in pharmacists and doesn’t put enough trust and faith in patients,” Taylor said. 

Moving statins to the front-end of a pharmacy might not be the best move given the potential for drug interactions, but a nonprescription behind-the-counter approach could work, according to Taylor. 

“The concerns are modest at most, to where they can be monitored by a pharmacist,” Taylor said. “There’s probably more people that would take a statin if they had that kind of access.” 

Many statin manufacturers have attempted to make the prescription to OTC switch. In 2005, an FDA advisory panel rejected Merck’s proposal for OTC sales of lovastatin after reviewing a study that found only 55% of OTC purchases would have been medically appropriate. 

In 2015, Pfizer pulled its application to make their cholesterol drug atorvastatin available to patients OTC because patients were not using the drug correctly. AstraZeneca is investigating an online platform that would allow patients to self-assess their eligibility for rosuvastatin. 

Asthma Inhalers 

Inhalers are the main rescue therapy for asthma aside from a visit to the emergency room. 

The only inhaler available OTC is epinephrine sold under the brand name Primatene Mist, but this type of medicine device is not recommended as a first-line therapy for acute asthma symptoms, according to the American Medical Association. 

“It’s been around for a long time and has stayed over the counter even though newer, safer agents have come onto the market which aren’t available over the counter,” William B. Feldman, MD, DPhil, MPH, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said. 

Patients who have a hard time getting to a doctor or patients who lack insurance often face barriers accessing albuterol inhalers and beta agonist–corticosteroid combinations, according to Feldman. A switch to OTC distribution would widen access. 

“What we’re advocating is, if they’re going to have access to Primatene mist, wouldn’t it be sensible to have access to a safer and more effective therapy?” Feldman said. 


Migraines affect an estimated 39 million people in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Several drugs to treat migraine are available OTC, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, aspirin, and acetaminophen. Triptans, drugs used for the short-term treatment of acute symptoms, are prescription-only in the United States. 

But in the United Kingdom, triptans first became available in retail stores in 2006, leading to reduced costs for patients, employers, and the government. One study found that government health expenditures would reduce by $84 million annually if the OTC switch was made in six European countries. 

However, overuse of the drug and potential contraindications have been cited as concerns with OTC access. 

For Winterstein, the decision to switch isn’t just about the freedom to buy a drug; it comes down to weighing potential risks and benefits. 

“Drugs are only as good as if they’re used in the context of how they should be used,” Winterstein said. “It’s not candy.” 

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram , and YouTube

Source: Read Full Article