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Why, how and when to self-medicate

Why, how and when to self-medicate

What’s self-medication?

When you walk into a chemist, pharmacy or even a supermarket to find something for a runny nose, an itchy throat or a little one’s grazed knee, that’s self-medication: the treatment of common health problems or the management of chronic health conditions, using medicines designed and labelled for use without medical supervision.

Why would you self-medicate? Well, maybe you don’t have time to take your cold to the doctor. Or your itchy throat crops up every now and then, and you know how to tackle it yourself. Or your son grazes his knee at school once a week, and you can’t afford to go to a doctor each time.

Because they’ve been approved as safe and effective for you to buy and use without a prescription, non-prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines help to reduce unnecessary medical fees, while giving you greater autonomy over your health and the health of your family.

Who’s self-medicating?

In the USA, 59% of people polled say that they’re more likely to treat their own health condition now than they were a year ago, while 73% state they’d rather treat themselves at home than see a doctor (WSMI, 2016). Globally, OTCs are actually outperforming prescription medications (Hall, 2016).

Closer to home, developing regions account for 84% of OTC medication growth. In the Middle East and Africa, the 3-year average growth of this market is a whopping 9.9% (Tisman, 2015).

Why the trend? One explanation is the information explosion, enabled by technological advances that improve access to health-related information. Consumers simply have more tools to take an active role in their healthcare.

As a result, a patient’s online information trail often follows this pathway: search engine (e.g. Google); Wikipedia; and then webMD or Patientslikeme, with Wikipedia considered a key source of healthcare information, according to IMS Health European Thought Leadership (Tisman, 2015).

In fact, a UK research firm estimated in 2015 that 65% of people who visited the Internet went to health-related sites (ONS, 2015). Further, there is clear correlation between Internet searches and OTC consumption (Tisman, 2015).

Why self-medicate?

The most compelling reason is speedier relief of the symptoms, while taking greater ownership of your own body. Nearly seven in 10 American parents have given their child an OTC medicine late at night, to treat a sudden medical symptom (CHPA, 2015). Another is lifestyle-related: by taking pro-active care of your overall health using self-medication – in the form of multivitamins in winter, for instance – you boost your immunity.

Beyond the individual, society benefits from citizens who are well informed about healthcare and can self-medicate, enabling efficient use of doctors’ and pharmacists’ skills and time, and reducing the burden on government resources. The WHO (2017) says responsible self-medication can:

1. help prevent and treat the symptoms of ailments that don’t require medical consultation,
2. reduce the pressure on medical services, especially when resources are limited,
3. increase the availability of health care to rural or remote populations, and
4. empower patients to control their own chronic conditions.

When & how to self-medicate?

How can you tell when to book a doctor’s appointment and when to handle things yourself? Then, what are the guidelines for safe self-medication?

Step 1: Assess

– Am I unsure about which medicine I need to effectively treat the ailment? 
– Am I, or a loved one, experiencing chest discomfort; numbness in arms, legs, or face; frequent urination; fatigue; or sharp abdominal pain?
– After taking medication, am I or is someone close to me experiencing unpleasant side effects or feeling worse?
– Have I, or someone close to me, become reliant on the medication that is being taken to treat the ailment?
– If none of these is the case, it’s probably safe to self-medicate.

Step 2: Prepare

When you visit a pharmacy, take a list that includes:

– any allergies,
– a symptom history (onset, severity, location, etc.), 
– medical and family history,
– current medication (all of it),
– lifestyle factors (use of caffeine, tobacco, etc.), and
– any concerns and questions, like:
o How often should this medication be taken?
o For how long?
o When should it start to work?
o How much should be taken?
o Are there medications that should be avoided with this one?
o Are there side effects, like drowsiness?
o Must any lifestyle changes be made?

Step 3: Read up

Read the medical ingredients, strength, uses, warnings and directions on the product label and in the manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. Some medicines should not be used together with others, while some may not be suitable for people with certain medical conditions.

Step 4: Safeguard 

When storing medicines at home, keep them out of children’s reach and sight. Choose a cool, dry storage environment (or an airtight container in your bathroom), so heat and moisture can’t affect your medicine.

Don’t remove medicines from their original packaging, because you could confuse them or miss out on the expiry date.

Never use medicine that has expired, or that has changed its appearance or smell in any way.

Don’t dispose of medicines down the sink or toilet, because this can contaminate the water supply. Rather return unused or expired medicine to your pharmacist, for safe and legal disposal.


The Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA) aims to promote self-care and to enable consumers to responsibly and appropriately self-medicate and self-treat primary ailments where possible. As such, SMASA represents companies involved in the provision, distribution and sale of healthcare products. SMASA also engages actively in legislative, regulatory and policy development.


1. Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA).
OTC Value: Statistics on OTC Use. 2015.
Available at: http://www.chpa.org/marketstats.aspx
Accessed 22 February 2017.

2. Office for National Statistics UK (ONS). |
Internet Access – Households and Individuals. 2015.
Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2015-08-06
Accessed 22 February 2017.

3. Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA).
Tips on when to self-medicate and when to seek medical care. 2015.
Available at: https://www.opatoday.com/Self-medication-tips
Accessed 22 February 2017.

4. Ruiz, ME. Risks of Self-Medication Practices.
US National Library of Medicine; National Institutes of Health 2010.
Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20615179
Accessed 21 February 2017.

5. Tisman, A. AESGP 2015 OTC Market Trends & Consumer Empowerment.
IMS Health 2015.

6. World Health Organization (WHO).
Global Health Observatory (GHO) Data.
Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD).
Available at: http://www.who.int/gho/ncd/en/
Accessed 13 February 2017.

7. World Self-Medication Industry (WSMI).
What is Self-Medication? 2016.
Available at: http://www.wsmi.org/about-self-care-and-self-medication/what-is-self-medication/
Accessed 21 February 2017.