Cheap & free prescriptions
20+ ways to slash the cost of prescriptions, medicine & flu jabs
Pricey pills and health treatments can leave your wallet feeling woozy. It's time for a MoneySaving medical. 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.
Prescriptions in England currently cost £9.65 (though they're free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
While prescriptions are free in the rest of the UK, they cost £9.65 per item in England.
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. In this case, check if you can save with a prepayment certificate.
All medicines administered by a GP or in hospitals or NHS walk-in centres are free (not if they prescribe you something to take away). Also free are prescribed contraceptives, and treatments for most sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and some mental health conditions (if the medicine has been prescribed under a community treatment order).
... 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. Use this quick, free NHS calculator to check if you qualify.
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 gave birth in the last 12 months, and have a valid maternity exemption certificate (known as a 'MatEx'). It's valid for 12 months after your due date, though can be extended if your baby is born later than expected.
You have a valid medical exemption certificate (known as a 'MedEx') – given for a range of illnesses, such as epilepsy or cancer, or severe disability.
You or your partner receive income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment & support allowance, or pension credit guarantee credit.
You're receiving universal credit and your earnings for the most recent assessment period were £435 or less (it's £935 or less if your universal credit includes an element for a child, or if you have a 'limited capability for work' or 'limited capability for work and work-related activity').
You're under 20 and are the dependant of someone who receives income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment & support allowance, pension credit guarantee credit. In some cases you may also qualify if you claim universal credit.
You have a war pension exemption certificate.
You're an NHS inpatient.
Or if you're entitled to or named on:
a valid NHS tax credit exemption certificate – if you don't have a certificate, you can show your award notice. You qualify if you get child tax credits, working tax credits with a disability element (or both), and have income for tax credit purposes of £15,276 or less.
a valid NHS certificate for full help with health costs (known as an 'HC2').
People named on an NHS certificate for partial help with health costs (HC3) may also get some assistance towards prescription costs. Find out more about the NHS Low Income Scheme (LIS).
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 scheme.
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 head lice. It's unlikely you'll be given branded drugs such as Calpol or Nurofen, but you can get generic, unbranded equivalents, plus things such as eye drops.
Remember... the meds you get for free through this scheme are paid for by the (increasingly cash-strapped) NHS – and ultimately taxpayers.
So only get what you really need, but can't afford. Many generic medicines cost 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 under-16s, under-19s 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 prescriptions regularly, check if you can save with a prepay certificate in England
Pay for a prescription in England and it costs £9.65 a time. If you need them regularly it can really add up. Alternatively, you can get a prepayment certificate – it's a bit like a prescription season ticket and can mean big savings.
As a rule of thumb...
Prepayment certificates win for people using at least one prescription a month over a long period.
There are two prepayment options – once you've got one, it covers all your prescriptions in that time:
- Three-month prepayment certificate - £31.25
- 12-month prepayment certificate - £111.60
Someone who gets two prescriptions each month for 12 months would save more than £100, compared with paying for individual prescriptions. See our table below for more help comparing costs.
How to get a certificate
Apply via the NHS Prescriptions site. You can pay by card, or by direct debit if you'd prefer to spread the cost. Forms are also available at certain pharmacies, or alternatively call 0300 330 1341.
To use it straight away, you can get your certificate by email, or you can print it after you've applied, then show your certificate details when collecting your prescription.
If you become eligible for free prescriptions after buying a certificate, you can reclaim the proportional cost for that time.
In the table below, we've shown how much you'll pay for regular single prescriptions over a three or 12 month period. Compare this with the cost of a prepayment certificate to see if it's worth it for you.
1 ITEM A MONTH £28.95 £115.80 2 ITEMS A MONTH £57.90 £231.60 3 ITEMS A MONTH £86.85 £347.40
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 pay for a prescription.
There's no hard and fast rule, though. On the flip side, if you use a lot of medication, getting a doctor to do a bulk prescription may be cheaper. Plus if you've already bought a prepayment certificate, you'll pay nothing extra.
Aqueous cream 500ml £9.65 £3.85 Hydrocortisone (1%) 15g tube £9.65 £3.50 (1) Prices from Boots.com, September 2023
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, such as diabetes, prostate cancer or 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, with private prescriptions it's an open marketplace and pharmacies can set their own prices, meaning costs vary hugely.
Grab a free or cheap flu jab
Plenty of people qualify for a free flu jab through the NHS, and if you're among those it lists as being at risk, it's recommended you have the vaccine every year to protect yourself. Check the free flu jab criteria below to see if you're eligible.
The NHS says the best time to have your flu vaccine is in the autumn or early winter, before flu starts spreading. But you can get your vaccine later.
If you don't qualify for a free NHS flu jab, you may be able to get one free through your employer. You may also be able to get a cheap (or even free) vaccine from your local pharmacy.
Here's who qualifies for a free flu jab:
- Those aged 65 or over (this includes those who'll be 65 by 31 March 2024).
- Those who are pregnant.
- Those with certain medical conditions (the NHS has a full list).
- Those living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facilities.
- Those who receive a carer's allowance or are the main carer for an elderly/disabled person.
- Those living with someone who's more likely to get infections.
- Front-line health and social care workers.
- Children over the age of six months with a long-term health condition.
- Children who were aged two or three on 31 August 2023.
- All primary school-aged children (reception to year six).
- Some children in secondary school (depending on availability).
To get an NHS flu jab, contact your GP surgery or a pharmacy offering the service. All the pharmacies in the table below offer the free flu jab, and it may be available at your local independent pharmacy, but you'll need to check.
Some midwifery services provide flu jabs for pregnant women.
Some employers also offer free flu vaccinations, so it's worth checking if you can get the jab at work (or get a voucher to use at a local pharmacy). 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.
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 it privately at your GP, but prices vary. We've seen it cost as much as £40 for adult vaccinations. It can be significantly cheaper from major supermarkets and pharmacies (about £9-£20).
Normally you'd get the vaccine as an injection, although the NHS says for most children it's administered via a nasal spray instead. The NHS advises that most children only need a single dose, but those who have not had the vaccine before should be given a second dose four weeks later.
Revealed: IDENTICAL meds, half the price
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.
It's important to realise you can often save big by buying an IDENTICAL pill, just in different packaging. Some tablets are half the price of their doppelgangers.
How to spot which tablets are identical. Check the 'PL number' on the packet. It's a unique licence number given exclusively to a particular drug made by a particular manufacturer (eg, PL 12063/0104 is a cold and flu remedy). The medicine's sometimes put in different packaging, but if the PL numbers match, it's the SAME drug.
We recently found a number of savings at Boots:
- Sudafed Congestion & Headache Relief, Day & Night Capsules were £5. But its own-brand Max Strength Cold & Flu Relief, Day & Night Capsules had an identical PL number (12063/0073), and were just £2.99.
- Sudafed Sinus Max Strength Capsules were £4.50. Boots Max Strength Sinus Pressure & Pain Relief Capsules had the same PL number (12063/0067), and were £3.49.
- Feminax Express was £5.29. Boots Migraine Pain Relief tablets had the same PL number (12063/0071), and were £2.99.
To show how much you can save, in 2016 we looked for the cheapest prices we could find for a range of cold and flu drugs, in store and online where possible, at Asda, Boots, Home Bargains, Lloyds, Poundland, Poundstretcher, Sainsbury's, Savers, Superdrug, Tesco and Wilko.
We excluded independent pharmacies from the research as pricing can vary widely, and internet pharmacies due to the cost of delivery, though both can be competitive. Here are the prices we found for brands and identical own-brand equivalents at four major chains – these include the cheapest and most expensive overall in each case:
Boots Lloyds Superdrug Wilko Max Strength Sinus Capsules (16) PL 12063/0067
£3.29 n/a n/a 95p Sudafed Congestion & Headache Relief £2.99 (1) 71% Max Strength Cold & Flu Capsules (16) PL 12063/0066 £3.29 £2.55 £3.29 95p Benylin Cold & Flu Max Strength Capsules £2.40 71% Max Strength All-In-One Sachets (10) PL 12063/0104 £3.89 £3.89 n/a £1.85 Beechams Max Strength All-In-One £3 52% Children's Cough Syrup
£2.29 (200ml) n/a n/a n/a Calcough Children's Soothing Syrup £3.59 (2) (125ml) 36%
Same active ingredient – pay up to 70% less
Even if there's not an identical medicine that's cheaper, it's often possible to save by shunning branded products and opting for a generic – unbranded or own-brand – equivalent. It's a medicine's 'active' ingredient that matters – the rest is largely irrelevant (unless you've certain allergies), though liquid capsules work quicker and some taste different.
Don't take our word for it. Professor Jayne Lawrence, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, says: "If the active ingredients, the dose and the formulation are the same, then medicines will have the same effect, whether they are a well-known brand or an unknown generic."
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 other medication.
To highlight this, in 2016 we compared cold, flu and fever branded products at their cheapest price against the cheapest generic, checking prices in store and online where possible, at Asda, Boots, Home Bargains, Lloyds, Poundland, Poundstretcher, Sainsbury's, Savers, Superdrug, Tesco and Wilko. Here's what we found:
Nurofen for Children £2.99 Savers Ibuprofen suspension 95p Savers/ Wilko 68% Calpol £2.45 Wilko Junior Parapaed 95p Wilko 61% Vicks Sinex Micromist 15ml £2.49 Savers Blocked Nose Relief 15ml 99p Home Bargains 60% Benylin Mucus Cough Menthol Flavour 150ml £3.85 Boots Mucus Cough Syrup 200ml £1.80 Sainsbury's 53% Lemsip Max sachets (10) £2.99 Home Bargains Max Strength Cold & Flu Relief (10) £1.75 Asda 41%
Prices checked Dec 2016 for medicine containing the same active ingredient, which is taken the same way. MSE research reviewed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, Royal Pharmaceutical Society and an independent pharmacist.
This follows our medicines report in 2016, Branded vs Generic: Cutting the cost of buying over-the-counter medicines.
The Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents the pharmaceutical industry, argues branded medicines are often first to the market and so their manufacturers carry higher development costs than those that follow.
In June 2016 we compared a wider range of medicines, and 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.
Again, 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 can be competitive. Although exact prices may have changed since 2016, this should still give you a rough idea of the savings to be had across a range of products:
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.
Different names doesn't mean it's a different medicine
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 spokesperson said it does this to help customers choose between its products.)
If you're not sure, use the industry insiders' trick and check the product licence number (eg, 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.
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 bigger 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 online pharmacies selling medicines in the UK must by law be on 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 £4.79 for six months' worth of the same active ingredient as Piriteze, which can cost £10 for one month.
See our full Cheap Hay Fever Tablets 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.
Over 60? Join Boots' club
The 'More Treats For Over 60s' club gives members eight 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 25% off glasses. See the Boots site for more info.
Get free eye tests
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 Free Eye Tests for more info. You'd pay around £20 normally, unless you're in Scotland where it's free.
Knock £100s off contact lenses costs
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. See our Cheap Contact Lenses guide for more information.
Grab a free NHS quit smoking kit
Check if you have a valid EHIC or apply for a free GHIC
A Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) and European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) give you treatment at state-run EU hospitals and GPs at the same cost as a local.
If you already have an EHIC, it will continue to cover you in EU countries for the entire time it's valid, so you MUST check it's still in-date as they expire after five years.
If you need to renew, or apply for the first time, you'll receive a GHIC instead – but it does the same thing. For full help, including how to get one for FREE (never pay), see our Free GHIC or EHIC guide.
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 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.
Clever ways to calculate your finances