/ Health

Are you sure your much-loved medicines actually work?


When I go to my local chemist, I trust that what they sell me works: after all it’s the same place that I get my prescriptions and health advice from. But how can I be sure that these products stand up to their claims?

Well, according to our latest research, I can’t. We found that some of our best-loved brands – such as Benylin chesty and tickly cough syrups – just don’t have the evidence base to prove they work, and other products have much cheaper alternatives. So what’s going on?

Medicine claims

To give some background, before medicines are approved for use, they go through clinical trials and are licensed. But before granting a licence, the regulator asks for evidence of acceptable quality, safe use and efficacy for the conditions the product claims to treat.

Yet, in the case of cough syrup, a review by the Cochrane Collaboration (the gold standard) concluded:

‘This lack of evidence of effectiveness also has implications for the regulatory bodies and brings into question how these products can continue to be promoted using language that implies that their effectiveness is not in doubt.’

So we asked the manufacturers to show us their evidence that their products actually work, and in some cases, they declined to do so. The trade body, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, said it’s because they didn’t want to give competitors ‘commercially sensitive’ data.

Although manufacturers have invested in research and new product development it’s rare for over-the-counter medicines to have patent protection once launched. What’s more is the European Medicines Agency encourages data sharing for pharmaceutical drugs and routinely publishes the clinical data submitted by companies.

Spot the difference

Our research also picked up on products that have cheaper alternatives. For example, Combogesic and Nuromol can be fairly expensive painkillers combining Ibuprofen and Paracetamol in one tablet. But, at 25p and 29p per tablet respectively, you could combine two generic ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets from up to 2.8p per tablet for an equivalent dose.

Another product to look closely at is Otrivine nasal spray. You can buy an Otrivine spray for allergy relief, another for sinusitis and a third for nasal decongestion. But the small print on the back of the packet would tell you that all three are exactly the same!

Otrivine’s manufacturer told us that these products marketed for different conditions to help you select ‘the product most suited to your needs’. Although the regulator says it’s in line with the product’s licensing, we think it’s misleading and you could waste money buying all three.

And if you’re in the market for the Otex and Earex Advance ear drops that our expert panel looked at, the wider evidence shows that they work. However, it’s likely that cheaper alternatives including saline, water, and olive or almond oil would work just as well.

Informed decisions

We think these firms should be more transparent and share their data so we can see if medicines and other health products are really worth our money.

So have you questioned the claims of any over-the-counter medicines? Should manufacturers be more upfront about their product claims?

bishbut says:
25 August 2017

All manufacturers of everything are in business to sell products to make money some are honest about their product but others including well known names while not being dishonest use dodgy methods to sell theirs A recomdation from a “celebrity” using facts and figures that are not true or accurate just to make you buy their product not a rivals If something new and improved comes on the market they try everything to keep you custom even theirs now does very little good at all I do not take much notice or ANY advertisements anywhere but it sometimes informs me or something new then I make my own mind up about it by reading independent reviews and asking those who have one about it and their experience with it Adverts all must all be taken with a pinch of salt Old saying again


Cough and cold medicines must be the biggest rip-offs. They can’t cure you, but you buy them anyway in the hope they will make you feel better. Some will give you a bit of relief, but it is very brief for your money and more often than not do absolutely nothing.


I think it is always worth reading the package to see what active ingredients are used. As the header article points out, generic equivalents are often available for a fraction of the price.


While that makes good sense Derek if it is packed with “inactive ” ingredients as well this can effect the ability of the medicine to perform its job to the same potential as another with only the essential ingredient in it. I am quoting here from personal experience and yes I have complained to both chemist+ doctor.


As Derek says, it’s well worth reading the list of active ingredients. Generally it is easy, but there are a few pitfalls. For example, most people would assume that pills containing 342 mg ibuprofen lysine contained a higher dose of the drug than 200 mg ibuprofen, but both contain the same amount.


Duncan mentions the use of inactive ingredients. These are also referred to as ‘fillers’ and are essential because the amount of active ingredient in a pill or capsule is often a few milligrams – a tiny amount. There are other reasons, and these are summarised in the Wikipedia article on excipients.

In most cases it makes no difference which fillers are present, making different brands equally affected. Sometimes it does make a difference and Duncan provided an example (eye drops?) in an earlier Conversation.


Wavechange I am not on “a few milligrams ” but =100Mg of Sumatriptan which , a certain country that has the monopoly in NHS supplies has upped the price astronomically. The Indian alternative is 3 times the size packed to the gills with “fillers ” which stop the absorption of the drug until it reaches a position in the gut that has less effect on your system . This has been backed up by a clinical pharmacist and she gave me the full [pharmaceutical details.


Sorry Duncan. I remember when you mentioned sumatriptan (a drug used to treat migraine) before, and the shortage of the drug. I accept what you are saying, but the pharmaceutical industry uses fillers for very good reasons and in MOST cases it does not matter which brand of medicine is prescribed. Many drugs are designed to release the active components slowly.


Gaviscon would be worthy of a detailed W? investigation. The pricing strategy and re-composition of the product to retain its price at regular intervals has ensured it remains expensive, although effective.