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...
Prescription charges in England are going up (though everywhere else they're free)
While prescriptions are free in the rest of the UK, most people in England pay, with the cost being £8.05 a time. This will be increasing to £8.20 on Wed 1 Apr - for more see the Prescription and dental charges rise in April MSE news story.
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 use NHS prescriptions regularly, prepay prescriptions can mean big savings
Pay for a prescription and it's £8.05 a time (£8.20 from Wed 1 Apr) - if you use them regularly it can really add up. A prepay certificate is 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
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 (from 1 April)
|Prepay certificate||Total cost of paying for single prescriptions for 3mths/1yr|
|1 item a month||2 items a month||3 items a month|
|Based on increased prescription charges which apply from 1 Apr 2015.|
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 £8.05 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 hayfever, 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||£8.05||£3.49|
|Glucosamine sulphate||30 tablets||£8.05||£1.99|
|1) Prices from Boots.com, 20 Mar 2015.|
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 you've 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.
Private prescription costs
|Pharmacy||Viagra (erectile dysfunction) 50mg 4 tabs||Malarone (anti-malaria) 16 tabs|
|Lloyds online||£30 (1)||£58 (1)|
|Pharmacy2u*||£26.35 (2)||£41.67 (2)|
|Updated 23 Mar 2015. 1) Includes £3.95 delivery for private prescriptions (if spending under £40). 2) Includes £2.95 delivery (if spending under £40).|
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?
All pharmacies, including online pharmacies, must be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council. Check its register to make sure.
Does it ask for a prescription?
Avoid websites providing prescription-only medication without asking for one - a sure sign they're dodgy. Reputable pharmacies will also ask questions about your condition.
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.
Save over 80% on medicines
Drug companies spend millions promoting ‘only-use-the-name-you-know' messages, but it’s marketing baloney.
Companies developing drugs only have unique sale rights for a set time. Afterwards, any company can make the drug, providing they meet regulations. So check the pack’s reverse for the ‘active' ingredient – the element that works its medicinal magic (if unsure ask your pharmacist).
Many generic products - unbranded or own-brand - have the same stuff, but cost much less. Protections and quality control apply equally to all branded and generic products.
For example, while Nurofen’s 200mg standard is £1.75, the same number of generic Ibuprofen tablets, its active ingredient, can cost as little as 25p.
If you have any allergies though, check the non-active ingredients too. Don't assume they're the same in a generic product as a branded one.
Branded vs generic medicine
|Branded product||Active ingredient||Branded||Cheap generic||Saving|
|Nurofen 16 tablets||Ibuprofen 200mg||£1.75||25p||£1.50|
|Panadol 16 tablets||Paracetamol 500mg||£1.45||19p||£1.26|
|Zirtek 7 tablets||Cetirizine 10mg||£2.00||14 tablets £2 (1)||£0.00|
Prices from Asda - updated 27 Mar 2015. 1) Asda's smallest pack of Cetirizine is 14 tablets but this is still cheaper than the smaller branded equivalent.
Don't take our word for it
Of course, our expertise is money, so why take our word for it? Dr Hilary Jones, the resident doctor on ITV1's Daybreak, agrees:
Every over-the-counter medication has a generic name and a trade name invented by the company who sells it. Paracetamol, for example, can be found in lots of different named products at different prices. But all contain paracetamol.
To save money, look at the ingredients on the pack then check the dose and the price. If in doubt, ask the pharmacist. - Dr Hilary Jones
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.
Branded drugs are often better packaged, with nicer-coloured tablets and better-tasting coating. 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 hayfever savings
Where generic medicine really kicks butt is hayfever 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.
Check out supermarkets 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.
Tesco and Asda 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 is coming to an end so it may not be worth getting your shot now if you didn't get one this past winter. But it's worth knowing what your options are for later this year - flu season normally starts around October-time).
The NHS says the jab 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 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 1 Sept 2014. (In England some older children aged 11-13 are also eligible in pilot areas).
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 cheaply 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 it's worth considering where you go as prices vary. Here's a rundown of what major supermarkets and pharmacies charge (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 get 15% off hearing aids and 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 all 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.
Find cheap beauty deals
You can't get mascara on the NHS, but you can often get it free. For an updated list of beauty deals, discounts and heaps of magazine freebies, see the Cheap Beauty Deals note.
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 are due to expire in 2015, 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).
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 3.2 million people in the UK have the condition, and the charity Diabetes UK estimates that there around 630,000 with undiagnosed diabetes. Symptoms of the condition include:
Needing a wee all the time, especially at night
Unexplained weight loss