Megan F | Edited by Steve N
Updated 5 Jul 2016
Pricey pills and health treatments can leave your wallet feeling woozy. It's time for a MoneySaving medical to cut the price of your prescriptions and medicines.
Top tips include using an NHS 'season ticket' for regular prescriptions, how to get a free or cheap flu jab and the best drink to help the (generic) medicine go down. Plus we've recently done an in-depth investigation revealing just how much more you can pay for branded medicines.
21 medicine savings, including...
Prescriptions in England now cost £8.40 (though everywhere else they're free)
While prescriptions are free in the rest of the UK, most people in England pay, and on 1 April the cost rose from £8.20 to £8.40.
The aim of the prescription system is simple. It's a flat fee, so that people can afford any necessary medicine regardless of cost. Yet for those on regular prescriptions, it can add up.
All medicines administered in hospitals or NHS walk-in centres are free (not if they prescribe you something to take away). Also free are prescribed contraceptives, medication personally administered by a GP and most sexually transmitted disease treatments.
... but a few in England do qualify for free prescriptions
Sadly if you're in England, nipping across the border to one of the neighbours won't help - but some still qualify for free prescriptions.
You are entitled to free medicines if:
- You're under 16 or over 60.
- You're in full-time education and 16-18 years old.
- You're pregnant or have had a baby in the last 12 months (and have a valid Maternity Exemption certificate).
- You or your partner receive Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income-related Employment & Support Allowance, or Pension Credit Guarantee Credit.
- You have a war pension exemption certificate.
- You're an NHS inpatient.
- You have a valid Medical Exemption Certificate (given for a range of illnesses, such as epilepsy or cancer, or severe disability).
If you qualify for free prescriptions, just fill in the back of the form at the pharmacist. Don't be tempted to lie - a false declaration can lead to a fine and prosecution.
If you get free prescriptions, you can often get other free meds for minor ailments too
If you or your child has a minor health complaint and you're already entitled to a free prescription, you may also be able to get free non-prescription medicines and treatments through the little-known NHS Minor Ailments Service.
This generally means you'll be able to get what you need from your local pharmacist at no cost - though it's not available everywhere.
This is great news if you or your little 'uns suffer from the sniffles - it can save a fortune treating common conditions such as coughs, diarrhoea, eczema and headlice. It's unlikely you'll be given branded drugs like Calpol or Nurofen, but you can get generic, unbranded equivalents, plus things like eye-drops.
Remember... while the meds and treatments you get through the Minor Ailments Scheme are free to you, they're paid for by the (increasingly cash-strapped) NHS - and ultimately taxpayers.
The aim of the scheme is that those who can’t afford can have access to some medicines. So make sure you only get what you need if you need it. Many generic medicines cost mere pennies and are quicker to get hold of.
In Scotland all community pharmacies run the scheme, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland it's run by the NHS locally - some areas will offer it, but others won't. Here's what to do:
Step 1: Check whether the scheme's available in your area. You'll find it in selected Boots and Lloyds pharmacies, plus other chains and independents. Ask your local pharmacy for info.
Otherwise, in England it's worth checking with your local health service body - 'Clinical Commissioning Group' in NHS jargon - to see if the scheme's offered locally. (Find yours on the NHS website.)
Step 2: Find out if you qualify. It works differently across the UK. In some parts of England, you can just turn up at the pharmacy as long as you're registered with a GP and eligible for free prescriptions but you'll need to check.
Outside England, prescriptions are free for all so there are other criteria. In Scotland it's for children, 16 to 19-year-olds in full time education, those aged 60+ and those with a medical exemption certificate or on certain benefits - see NHS Scotland. In Wales and Northern Ireland it varies, so check with your pharmacist.
- Step 3: Go to the pharmacy. You, or your child, will need to see the pharmacist and may need to be assessed. In England, bring evidence you're eligible for free prescriptions, eg proof of age or the relevant certificate. In Scotland you'll also need to register with the pharmacy when you go, if you're not already.
If you use NHS prescriptions regularly, prepay prescriptions can mean big savings
Pay for a prescription and it's £8.40 a time, so if you need them regularly it can really add up. Alternatively, you can get a prepay certificate - it's a bit like a prescription season ticket and can mean big savings.
A three-month one costs £29.10, a year’s costs £104 – and once you’ve got it it covers all your prescriptions in that time. As a rule of thumb...
Prepay certificates tickets win for people who use more than one prescription a month.
If your condition's consistent, the longer certificate's the better value of the two. Someone who gets two prescriptions a month would save more than £90 a year, compared with paying for individual prescriptions.
How to get a certificate
Apply via the NHS Prescriptions site. You can pay by card or, to spread the cost, direct debit. Forms are also available at certain pharmacies, or alternatively call 0300 330 1341.
If you become eligible for free prescriptions after buying a certificate, you can reclaim the proportional cost for that time.
NHS season tickets cost comparison
|Prepay certificate||Total cost of paying for single prescriptions|
|1 item a month||2 items a month||3 items a month|
You can backdate a certificate for up to a month
Certificates usually start on the day applications are received. However, if you’ve shelled out for some in the last month you can request it's backdated up to one month earlier – and reclaim the cost.
If you have to pay for a prescription while waiting for your certificate, you can claim back the cost up to three months after paying.
You must ask for an NHS receipt (FP57) from the pharmacist when you pay for the prescription(s) - you can't get one later.
Prescriptions aren't always cheapest
If you're prescribed common medication such as painkillers or dermatology creams that are also available over the counter, often it's cheaper to buy them that way rather than spend £8.40 on a prescription.
There's no hard ‘n’ fast rule, though. On the flip side, if you use a lot of medication such as three months of anti-histamine for summer hay fever, getting a doctor to do a bulk prescription is often cheaper. Plus if you've already bought a prepayment certificate, you'll pay nothing extra.
Prescription vs. over the counter
|Drug||Dose||Prescription cost||Over the counter cost (1)|
|Hydrocortisone (1%)||15g tube||£8.40||£3.19|
|1) Prices from Boots.com, 1 Jul 2016|
Find the cheapest private prescriptions
While NHS prescription prices are fixed, pharmacies can set their own for private prescriptions. These are given when you want a drug not covered by the NHS in your region, such as Malarone to prevent malaria if you’re travelling and some cancer drugs.
It could be a drug for a lifestyle-enhancing purpose, such as sexual aid Viagra (although this can be on the NHS if your erectile dysfunction's caused by a medical problem, like diabetes, prostate cancer or had a kidney transplant) or anti-baldness drug Propecia.
Non-NHS doctors can't give NHS prescriptions. So go to one for emergency weekend diagnosis, or because you're a member of a scheme, and you'll get a private prescription.
Always compare prices
Unlike the world of NHS prescriptions, it's an open marketplace and pharmacies can set their own prices, meaning costs vary hugely.
Asda has a private prescription price promise, so if you find it cheaper on an online pharmacy, print it off and take it to Asda instore. It's mainly a question of leg work. Call up or ask in a few places.
Revealed: The great branded drugs rip-off
The pharmaceutical industry's full of genuine wizards - both those who make the drugs that help, and the marketeers who use a raft of tricks to persuade us there's hidden magic in their brands. Drug companies spend millions promoting 'only-use-the-name-you-know' messages – but it's often marketing baloney.
Companies developing drugs only have unique sale rights for a set time. Afterwards, any company can make the drug, providing it meets regulations. So check the pack’s reverse for the ‘active' ingredient – the actual medicinal element (if unsure, ask your pharmacist).
Many generic products – unbranded or own-brand – have the same stuff, but cost much less. The same protections and quality-control apply equally to all branded and generic products.
To show the scale of the difference, we looked for the cheapest price we could find, in-store and online where possible, at Asda, Boots, Home Bargains, Lloyds, Poundstretcher, Sainsbury's, Savers, Superdrug and Tesco.
We excluded independent pharmacies from the research as pricing can vary widely, and internet pharmacies due to the cost of delivery if you're not bulk-buying, though both are worth factoring in as some can be competitive. Here are the results:
Branded vs generic medicine
|Branded product||Cheapest branded||Generic equivalent||Cheapest generic||Saving as a %|
|Nurofen (16)||£1.98 Asda||Ibuprofen (16)||25p Asda||87%|
|Clarityn (30)||£6 Sainsbury's||Loratadine (30)||£1 Savers||83%|
|Anadin Paracetamol (16)||£1 Savers||Paracetamol (16)||19p Asda||81%|
|Nurofen Joint and Back Pain Gel 35g||£4 Asda||Ibuprofen gel 35g||99p Home Bargains||75%|
|Piriteze (30)||£6 Sainsbury's||Cetirizine Hydrochloride (30)||£1.49 Poundstretcher||75%|
|Sudafed Blocked Nose (12)||£2.39 Lloyds||Max Strength Congestion Relief||60p Sainsbury's||75%|
|Anadin Extra (16)||£1.99 Lloyds||Aspirin Extra||54p Asda||73%|
|Imodium Original (6)||£2.19 Savers||Loperamide (6)||59p Home Bargains||73%|
|Nurofen Kids 100ml||£3.15 Sainsbury's||Ibuprofen 3+mths||95p Savers||70%|
|Vicks Sinex Micromist 15ml||£3 Asda||Nasal Decongestant Spray 15ml||£1 Asda/Tesco||67%|
|Calpol Infant 2+ mths 100ml||£2.98 Asda||Infant Paracetamol Suspension 100ml||£1.09 Home Bargains||63%|
|Corsodyl 300ml||£4.49 Superdrug||Chlorhexidine 300ml||£2 Sainsbury's||55%|
|Nurofen Migraine (12)||£2.65 Sainsbury's||Migraine Relief (12)||£1.35||49%|
|Lemsip Max (10)||£2.69 Savers||Max Strength Cold and Flu||£1.76 Asda||35%|
|£3 Sainsbury's||Chlorphenamine Maleate (30)||£2.75 Tesco||8%|
|Prices collected between 21 and 27 June 2016.|
We published the full findings in our report Branded vs Generic: Cutting the cost of buying over-the-counter medicines, prepared with input from Professor Jayne Lawrence, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
The Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents the branded over-the-counter medicine industry, argues branded medicines are often first to the market and so their producers carry higher development costs than those that follow.
Important – watch out if you have allergies. If, eg, you’re lactose intolerant, it’s important to check non-active ingredients too, as these can differ between branded and generic drugs. If in any doubt ask a pharmacist, particularly if taking any other medication.
Medicines are allowed to have "informative" names on the packet, such as Bloggs Pain Relief, to help you choose the product you need.
But this can be confusing as identical medication, such as Anadin Ultra and Anadin Period, can look completely different. (An Anadin spokesman said it does this to help customers chose between its products.)
If you're not sure, there's an industry insiders' trick you can use to be sure. Every medicine is given a product licence number (it'll look something like PL 10000/1000). If you spot two with the same number, even if the packaging is worlds apart, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society says it means it's the same product - that's the same active ingredient AND the same formulation.
Also be wary of claims that a medicine can 'target' specific areas. Nurofen was recently rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority for a "misleading" TV advert which it said claimed a Nurofen product could specifically target joint and back pain. See the Nurofen TV advert banned MSE news story for more.
Own–brand ISN'T always the cheapest - identical tablets from the same store can cost much more
The Boots and Galpharm hayfever tablets pictured here are identical - made by the same manufacturer, sold in the same store. Yet as MSE's investigation into drug pricing revealed, there's a £5.20 difference between them.
While supermarket own-brands are pretty reasonable, Boots and Lloyds pharmacies in particular can be costly, so check for cheaper generics. Remember prices can change, particularly with offers and depending on the season. Here's what we found:
Own brand vs generic medicine
|Active ingredient||Asda||Boots||Lloyds||Sainsbury's||Tesco||Cheapest brand||Cheapest generic|
|Cetirizine Hydrochloride (30)||£2.50||£8.19||£7.79||£2.75||£2.75||£6 (ii)||£1.49|
|Max Strength Cold & Flu (i)||£1.76||£2.99||£2.79||£2||£1.80||£2.69||£1.76|
|Loratadine (30)||£2.50||£8.19||£7.99||n/a||£2.75||£6 (ii)||£1|
|Prices checked 21-27 June 2016. (i) Paracetamol 1000mg, phenylephrine hydrochloride 12.2mg.|
If in doubt ask for the cheapest generic medication - though again, double-check with the pharmacist about any allergies.
A Boots spokesman said: "We offer a wide range of hayfever and allergy treatments from various brands, allowing our customers to choose according to their own preference." A Lloyds spokesman said: "We have a range of combination therapies available including tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops, with promotional deals that offer great savings when customers purchase across all of these categories."
Ask your GP for a bigger prescription
Doctors often automatically write out prescriptions for small amounts. If you know you'll be coming back for more and the medicine's not dangerous if overused, ask for a repeat prescription. But be aware that some doctors are only allowed to prescribe enough medicine to last a certain amount of time.
Buying from an online pharmacy's cheap, but make sure it's safe too
When buying online, ensure it's an above-board UK pharmacy, not an illegal site based in some far-flung corner of the world. Follow this checklist before buying:
Is it registered?
Since 1 July this year, all online pharmacies selling medicines in the UK must by law display the European common logo on every page of their website.
The logo will link to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency's register of authorised online pharmacies. The General Pharmaceutical Council also runs a voluntary internet pharmacy scheme so look out for the 'registered pharmacy' logo too.
Does it ask for a prescription?
The GPhC also suggested using one that asks your for a prescription before they give you your meds. Lots of online pharmacies don't (even registered ones). Instead, they run an online prescription service (sometimes called an 'online doctor'), where you can enter details about your symptoms before getting a diagnosis and prescription medication. The GPhC says avoid these if you can.
Check the use-by date
Online pharmacies sometimes flog medication cheap because it has a short lifespan. Be sure to check the use-by date on the packet.
Normally, tablets usually have a lifespan of a few years, so this is rarely a problem. But if you're buying in bulk it's worth considering whether you'll use them in time.
Cheap tablets taste bad? Try a glass of OJ
While there's no medical difference between branded and generic medicines, the packaging and the design usually differ, with nicer-coloured tablets and better-tasting coatings on premium brands. But swallow a pill with orange juice and you shouldn’t notice the difference.
Don't use grapefruit juice though, as doctors warn it can counteract some medications.
Don’t sneeze at hay fever savings
Where generic medicine really kicks butt is hay fever and allergy tablets. Price wars among online pharmacies sometimes see it drop as low as £4 for three months’ worth of the same active ingredient as Zirtek, which can cost £3.29 for a week.
See our full Cheap Hay Fever Remedies guide for the latest top deals.
Check out supermarkets or discount stores for medicine
The biggest saving is in switching to generic from branded medicines, regardless of where you shop. However, to grab even bigger price cuts, try your supermarket or discount stores, such as Savers.
Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco especially have steamrollered the pharmaceutical world in the past few years, with cheap prices that often undercut the high street pharmacies.
Remember though, if the price difference isn't too great, buying generic at your local independent pharmacy may help it remain open in the face of stiff competition.
Grab a free or cheap flu jab
Flu season's over, but the criteria for free flu jabs generally stay the same from year to year.
The NHS says vaccination isn't necessary for all, as usually healthy people who get the flu will recover within a week or so. But if you are among those most at risk it's a must - and many choose to get it even if they're not.
Normally you'll get the vaccine as an injection, although the NHS says for most children it's administered via a nasal spray instead. The NHS vaccination programme advises most children only need a single dose but some including those with a medical condition may need two - check with your doctor.
Get a free flu jab
According to the NHS it offers free flu jabs at GPs and participating pharmacies across the UK if you:
Are 65 years of age or over
Have certain medical conditions (the NHS has a full list)
Are living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility
Receive a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an elderly/disabled person
Are a healthcare worker with direct patient contact or a social care worker
Are a child who was aged between two and four on 31 August 2015.
Some employers also offer free flu vaccinations, so it's worth checking if you can the jab at work. These schemes are typically open to everybody but may be run on a first-come, first-served basis, so make sure you sign up promptly.
Find it cheap elsewhere
If you don't qualify for a free flu jab on the NHS or at work, you'll have to pay. You can often get one privately at your GP, but prices vary and it can be up to £20. Alternatively, here's a rundown of what major supermarkets and pharmacies charged this winter (unless otherwise specified, jabs are for adults only):
Over 60? Join Boots' club
The 'More Treats For Over 60s' club gives members 10 Advantage Card points for every £1 spent in-store on Boots' own brand products. It's free and open to anyone aged 60 or over and a UK resident. Members also 25% off glasses. See the Boots site for more info.
You’ve a legal right to take your prescription elsewhere after an eye test, so check the masses of online discount suppliers for glasses at a fraction of the cost. High street opticians often offer free tests for a limited time. See the Free Eye Tests deals note.
Knock £100s off contact lenses costs
Tesco offers free eye tests at its in-store opticians nationwide. You’d typically pay around £20 elsewhere, unless you’re in Scotland where it’s free.
Don’t feel obliged to get your glasses or contacts from the optician who does your eye test.
The likes of Boots and Specsavers sell own-brand lenses, but they're often reboxed versions of big manufacturers' lenses. The Cheap Contact Lens Finder uncovers the real brand and shows where they're cheapest online.
Smoking's as bad for your wealth as it is for your health. There are a raft of subsidised or free ways to help you quit, such as a free Quit Kit from NHS Smokefree. More tips in the Stop Smoking guide.
Check if your free EHIC card's valid
EHIC cards give you access to EU state-run hospitals and GPs like a local - if they pay nowt, nor do you.
Yet beware: over five million cards expired in the last year, leaving many packing pointless plastic. So check yours is valid.
Never pay to get or renew, as EHICs are free - only shyster sites charge. Also, ignore any nonsense 'fast track' promises. See our full Free EHIC Help (including what to try if you paid).
(The EHIC is an agreement between countries in the EU and European Economic Area. The vote for Brexit may affect this in future, but nothing's likely to happen for at least the next two years. For now, you can carry on using the scheme as normal).
Download our free Mental Health & Debt booklet
Mental health issues can cause severe debt, and severe debt's a catalyst for mental health problems. So we launched our 44-page Mental Health & Debt Help PDF booklet (thanks to charities Mind, Rethink, CAPUK & others for help).
The booklet's crammed with info on handling debts when unwell, working with banks, where to get help, whether to declare a condition to your bank and more.
It's written for individuals, caseworkers and carers as well as families of those with anxiety, depression, bipolar and more.
Get a free diabetes test
Diabetes occurs because the body can't use glucose properly, either because of a lack of the hormone insulin or because the insulin available doesn't work effectively. If left untreated, this can lead to serious health problems, like high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney failure and nerve damage.
More than 3.9 million people in the UK have the condition, and the charity Diabetes UK estimates that there around 850,000 with undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes. Symptoms of the condition include:
Needing a wee all the time, especially at night
Unexplained weight loss