CHOOSING A MEDICINE – what sort of drug is it?

Medicine bottles often contain words like ‘analgesic’, ‘expectorant’ and ‘purgative’. These and many other words are used to categorize products and throughout the following sections the same terms will recur. To avoid repeating definitions in the text and to help medicine buyers confused by jargon on labels and advertisements I have compiled an easy reference guide to the terms most commonly used by pharmacists, doctors and manufacturers.

I should perhaps point out that these definitions are not intended to be suitable for students of pharmacology!

Anaesthetic a product that dulls the senses. For home use this invariably means a cream or spray which helps control irritation or pain.

Analgesic a painkiller.

Anorectic a drug that reduces the appetite. Clearly most slimming drugs fall into this category.

Antacid something that counteracts or opposes the action of an acid. Antacids are usually prescribed for the relief of indigestion pains which may be exacerbated by the excessive production or availability of stomach acid.

Antibiotic a chemical product which destroys living organisms. Antibiotics intended for use by mouth have to be prescribed by a doctor but there are creams, ointments and so on containing antibiotics which are available for home use.

Anticholinergic a drug which interferes with the process whereby nervous impulses are passed through the body. They are sometimes used in the prevention of motion sickness, for example.

Anti-emetic a product designed to prevent vomiting.

Antihistamine a substance which counteracts the effects of ‘histamine’, a chemical which is released within the body automatically when tissues are injured but which itself has unwanted effects. Reddening of the skin which occurs after a sting is caused by the production of histamine. An antihistamine drug can prevent that reaction developing.

Anti-inflammatory a drug which helps oppose inflammatory processes within the body. Inflammation can be caused by injury or infection and usually involves heat, redness, swelling and pain. An anti-inflammatory drug can help control those symptoms.

Antiperspirant a product which prevents sweating – for example, by blocking the pores in the skin.

Antipyretic something which helps bring down a fever or temperature. Aspirin has an antipyretic action.

Antiseptic a substance which destroys small organisms which may harm living tissues .

Antispasmodic a drug which helps stop spasms. Muscle spasms can be a cause of pain, and an antispasmodic may therefore effectively prevent or relieve pain.

Anxiolytic a drug designed to help an anxious or worried patient. Effective anxiolytics usually need to be obtained on prescription.

Aperient a gentle laxative or fairly mild ‘opening’ medicine.

Astringent strictly speaking an astringent is something that prevents a discharge of any kind. Substances which stop bleeding may be astringents.

Cathartic a purgative or laxative. Something which helps to empty the bowels.

Caustic a substance which can burn and destroy.

Cough suppressant a substance which actually helps a patient stop coughing. Some cough medicines are not, in fact, designed to do this .

Decongestant usually means something which helps to relieve congestion or stuffiness in the nose and sinuses.

Deodorant a product designed to remove (or prevent) unwanted body smells. A deodorant may contain a disinfectant (intended to destroy organisms which might otherwise break down human sweat and in the process produce a nasty smell) and/or a perfume designed to disguise unpleasant smells.

Disinfectant a substance which destroys small organisms which may produce infection and harm living tissue. The word ‘disinfectant’ is usually kept for products which are used on inanimate objects which need to be kept clean (dirty sheets may be washed in a disinfectant), whereas the word ‘antiseptic’ is usually kept for products used on the human body (mouthwashes, lotions, creams and so on). However, this distinction is not always followed and the two words are often used by home medicine manufacturers as though they were interchangeable. Just to make matters even more confused there are manufacturers who claim that their products contain antiseptics and disinfectants. For practical purposes the words antiseptic and disinfectant are interchangeable.

Diuretic a product which increases the flow of urine. By increasing the rate at which water is excreted from the body a diuretic may help reduce ankle swelling or other signs of fluid retention.

Expectorant a medicine which helps a patient bring up sputum. It works by liquefying secretions which exist or by encouraging the production of fluids which will dilute secretions.

Germicide an agent that destroys small organisms. For practical purposes as far as home medicines are concerned germicide is interchangeable with antiseptic and disinfectant.

Hypnotic a drug that helps produce sleep. Powerful hypnotics are only available on prescription and mild hypnotics probably rely heavily on the placebo effect .

Keratolytic a powerful substance used to destroy unwanted skin (such as warts and corns) but which can damage good, healthy skin.

Laxative a medicine which helps empty the bowels. Laxative, purgative and cathartic all mean the same thing.

Medicated this word is used by many manufacturers as though it

Automatically improved the quality of any product. It simply means that the product concerned contains a substance which has medicinal properties. For example, sticking plasters which are treated with antiseptics are described as ‘medicated’ as are sweets which contain minute quantities of substances which have mild medicinal qualities.

Preservative labels on medicine bottles often list ingredients described as preservatives. These substances do exactly the same job as the preservatives added to foodstuffs – they help stop the product going bad.

Prophylactic strictly speaking a prophylactic is anything which helps prevent disease. In everyday language, however, a prophylactic often means a condom. This specialized definition has some validity if you regard pregnancy as a disease.

Purgative a medicine which helps empty the bowels . The British sometimes seem to be obsessed with the behaviour of their bowels and the number of available words which can be used to describe drugs which have an effect on ‘stubborn’ bowels seems to illustrate this obsession rather well.

Sedative a drug which has a calming effect. Most sedatives also cause drowsiness. Powerful sedatives are only available on prescription.

Stimulant a substance which excites all or part of the human body. Caffeine is a stimulant which has a general effect on human beings.

Tranquillizer a medicine which has a calming effect. Tranquillizers are supposed to cause less drowsiness than sedatives but in practical terms this difference is usually rather slight.

Vasodilator a chemical which opens up the blood vessels and thereby encourages the flow of blood to the tissues. Products designed for use by patients with chilblains may be described as vasodilators. There is much contradictory evidence about the effectiveness of drugs in this category.


Do check the price of the product you are buying with comparable alternatives. New, well-advertised products are inevitably more expensive than products that are not advertised. You can pay twice as much for a well-known brand name as for a product which contains exactly the same ingredients. Products marked BP or BPC have to be prepared to official standards and are often cheaper than products with well-known names. New and wonderful products usually contain old drugs in new packaging; most are simply variations on existing themes.


Do not store a home medicine for more than six months. Throw out discoloured tablets and mixtures which do not return to their original colour and consistency after a shake. Do not open capsules or crush tablets which are not designed to be crushed. Never use unlabelled medicines. If you have to dispose of old drugs either take them along to your pharmacist or throw them down the lavatory.

Make sure that when you buy a home medicine you know when to take it and how much to take. If you are buying a liquid medicine ask the pharmacist for a measuring spoon. The small print on the side of a medicine bottle is often very important.


Don’t buy or use home medicines if you are taking prescribed medicines, if you suffer from a long-term disorder or if you are pregnant or breast feeding. Never use a home medicine regularly. Home medicines are designed for the treatment and alleviation of acute problems not chronic ones. Knowing when not to use a home medicine is probably more important than knowing when to use one. Don’t take extra doses of home medicines if the recommended doses don’t work. Mae West is reported to have said that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. Whatever else she was talking about it wasn’t medicines. Don’t mix home medicines, don’t give adult doses to children and always keep medicines in a lockable cupboard or well out of reach of children.

WHEN YOU GO TO THE DOCTOR . . . . . . tell him if you have already tried to treat yourself without success. For example, if you have indigestion and you’ve tried a particular antacid then tell him. Otherwise you may find yourself leaving the surgery with a prescription for exactly the same product. Remember that self-medication is a supplement to medical care not a substitute or competitor.


1 Always read and follow any instructions and warnings provided by the manufacturer. Never exceed the recommended dose.

2 Always keep medicines – even apparently harmless ones -out of the reach of children.

3 Don’t take home medicines if you are taking anything prescribed by a doctor – unless you have his permission.

4 Never continue with home treatment for more than five days.

5 If you are in doubt about how to use a medicine ask the pharmacist.

6 If you are taking a medicine don’t drink alcohol.

7 Some home medicines cause drowsiness – so beware!

8 Pregnant women should never take home medicines unless they’ve consulted a doctor first.

9 Don’t use old medicines. Buy in small quantities and replace stocks every six months or so.

10 Never use old medicines if you aren’t sure what they are. Anything without a proper label should be thrown away.

11 If you intend travelling outside northern Europe see your travel agent or doctor to check up on what vaccinations or medicines you may need to take.

12 If you develop any unusual or persistent symptoms on returning from a trip abroad get in touch with your doctor straight away. Don’t try treating disorders which may have been contracted in foreign countries by yourself.

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