Patients in England paid for more than 180,000 prescriptions for hay fever remedies in 2016 and 2017, despite them being available elsewhere at a much cheaper price over the counter (OTC), according to data obtained by MoneySavingExpert.
The NHS data, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, revealed that patients were paying between £8.20 to £8.60 per prescription for the three main generic hay fever remedies — cetirizine, loratadine and chlorphenamine maleate — despite the over-the-counter versions being available for as little as £1.99.
MoneySavingExpert’s analysis of the data showed that “all of the drugs could have been bought for less if the patient had bought over the counter elsewhere”.
Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert, said people living with hay fever should not assume that just because they have been issued with a prescription, that it is necessarily the cheapest way to get the medicine.
“Ideally pharmacy staff would warn patients if they’re about to pay for a prescription when over-the-counter’s cheaper, but this doesn’t always happen — so do a quick scan yourself,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said that possible explanations for patients paying for prescriptions and not buying OTC include not knowing the drug can be bought without a prescription or the tablets historically having been more expensive or only available on prescription.
“We advise that most people with hay fever who require antihistamines should be buying them from a community pharmacy,” they said.
In December 2017, NHS England opened a consultation on guidance for clinical commissioning groups around self-limiting conditions for which OTC items should not be routinely prescribed in primary care.
Mild-to-moderate hay fever/seasonal rhinitis was one of the conditions for which NHS England suggested prescribing could be restricted, on the grounds that it is a minor illness and is suitable for self-care treatment with items that can easily be purchased OTC from a pharmacy.
However, the consultation document acknowledged that its recommendations regarding hay fever medication could result in an unintended consequence of an increase in steroid and/or prescription antihistamine prescribing.