How Long Does Over-the-Counter Medicine Typically Last?

What is an Over-the-Counter Medicine?

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are drug treatment substances people can purchase without a prescription. OTC medicines treatment may vary depending on the medication, such as relieving pain and itchiness and treating minor health conditions such as headaches, cold and flu symptoms, allergies, pain, and digestive problems. 

At the same time, other types help treat recurring issues such as migraines and allergies. These medicines can be bought directly from pharmacies, supermarkets, and stores.  In addition, OTC medicines come in various forms, such as tablets, capsules, liquids, creams, and gels, and may contain more than one active ingredient.

Medically speaking, these medicines are safe and effective if directions on the label are followed religiously with the approval and guidance of a medical professional. Some medications may have side effects or interact with other medicines, so it’s always recommended to consult a medical professional before taking any new medicines, especially for patients with pre-existing medical conditions or who are taking other medications. 

Common Over-the-Counter Medicines in the Market

1. OTC for Allergies

Nasal Spray

Generally, there is no cure for allergies. Still, many medications (over-the-counter and prescription) help relieve and treat bothersome symptoms such as stuffy and runny nose. Seasonal allergy medications are usually available to treat symptoms and redness and itching. Popular categories include antihistamines, intranasal steroids, and decongestants. 

Antihistamines have been popularly used for years to treat allergy symptoms. They can be taken as tablets, liquids, nose, or eye drops. Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine eye drops can relieve itchy red eyes, while nasal sprays can treat seasonal or year-round allergy symptoms. Although safe, it is better to be careful in taking antihistamines as there are adverse effects if taken too much. Many older over-the-counter antihistamines cause drowsiness. 

Newer antihistamines that don’t make you sleepy are available over-the-counter and by prescription. Some antihistamines can slow reaction times, make it difficult to concentrate and think clearly, and cause mild confusion, affecting driving and operating heavy machinery without feeling drowsy.

Meanwhile, a decongestant is a medicine that temporarily relieves nasal congestion. It works by reducing the swelling of blood vessels in the nose. This helps open the airways. Most decongestants are available at pharmacies without a prescription. They are found in nasal drops, eye drops, liquids, and tablets. Nasal drops and decongestants should only be used for a few days, as long-term use may worsen symptoms. Pills and liquid decongestants are safe to take longer. 

2. OTC for Cough, Cold, and Sore Throat

Cough Medicine

Over-the-counter cold medicines are widespread in the grocery. Even though cold medicines can treat symptoms to make you feel better, they do not shorten a cold. The same goes for cough, which usually does not require treatment. It typically wears off over time. Some OTC cough medicines contain ingredients that stop the coughing reflex. Some also contain active ingredients that thin the mucus. 

For sore throat, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin are very popular in the pharmacyAlternatively, some use a tablet or throat spray to lessen the pain in the throat.

3. OTC for Fever and Aches

Medicine Pills

Typically, there are two types of OTC for different kinds of aches. One is acetaminophen. This drug treats mild to moderate pain, such as headaches, period cramps, toothaches, and backaches, and even reduces fever. It also helps clear nasal congestion, commonly found in cough and cold products and other medicines.

The other type is Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs or NSAIDs. Aspirin and ibuprofen are examples of NSAIDs. Over-the-counter NSAIDs are available at drugstores and supermarkets without a prescription. Aspirin reduces fever and relieves mild to moderate pain, such as muscle aches, toothaches, colds, and headaches. In contrast, ibuprofen can reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pain due to the cold or flu. The main difference between acetaminophen and NSAIDs is the former is a pain reliever and fever reducer but has no inflammatory properties the latter. 

4. OTC for Stomach Pain

Treatments for abdominal pain are available over the counter. For gas pain, medicine with simethicone can help get rid of it, while patients with heartburn from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can use antacid or acid reducer. Further, simple constipation, a stool softener, or a laxative can help the stomach usually work again. Meanwhile, cramps caused by diarrhea may seek help from medicines that have loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol) to feel better again.

Over-the-Counter Duration (Shelf Life)

Person taking medicine

The shelf life of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs depends on many factors, including drug type, manufacturer, and expiration date. OTC medicines should generally be used by the date indicated on the package or by a healthcare professional. The expiration date of OTC medicines is very easy to find as it has been a requirement for any medicinal substance to have a printed expiration date on the packaging since a law was passed in 1979. Drug manufacturers are required to put a printed expiration date on their products, and it should indicate the date beyond which the manufacturer can no longer guarantee the effectiveness and safety of the medication. An expired medicine can be dangerous and may not provide the intended benefits.

Further, it is essential to note that the shelf life of OTC medicines can also be affected by storage conditions such as environmental factors (heat, humidity, and light). The logic is that moisture and air can break down the pill or capsule once the medicine is removed from its original packaging and placed in a pharmacy container. Medical drugs should be stored in a cool, dry place from direct sunlight and adequately disposed of when expired or no longer needed. It’s important to always check the package for proper usage instructions and expiration dates.

A considerable number of months past the expiration date is acceptable for allergy medicines. The same goes for OTCs treating headaches; pain can be slightly extended after expiration. Years after the due date is a dangerous risk. Further, liquid allergy medicine, such as nasal sprays, tend to expire earlier than tablets or in capsules, and they usually lose their effectiveness more quickly after expiring. For cough syrups, dispose of the bottle six months after opening or if expired. For pain relievers, the expiration date listed on ibuprofen bottles is when the manufacturer can guarantee that ibuprofen is still fully potent and effective. However, research has been shown to retain 90% of their effectiveness for at least five years after their stated expiration date. 


Today, over-the-counter drugs are more widely available than ever before. If you usually face the expiration dilemma and medication effectiveness, remember that one simple mistake can make a fatal health risk. Expiration dates play a crucial role. Although some studies found that most over-the-counter medicines are safe to take past their intended use date, always take preventive measures.

Aside from the ones mentioned in this article, there are also anti-inflammatory creams that are considered OTC medicines. You may check out our Guide to Choosing the Right Anti-Inflammatory Creams to learn more about them.