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Types of medicines

Most medicines come in a variety of types or formats. Be aware, though, that some medicines (particularly rare or unusual ones) only come in one type. Also, some may be more effective in one type than another.

Preparations

In the UK, medicines often come in some of the following preparations:

Liquid

The active part of the medicine is combined with a liquid to make it easier to take or better absorbed. A liquid may also be called a ‘mixture’, ‘solution’ or ‘syrup’. Many common liquids are now available without any added colouring or sugar.

Tablet

The active ingredient is combined with another substance and pressed into a round or oval solid shape. There are different types of tablet. Soluble or dispersible tablets can safely be dissolved in water. 

Capsules

The active part of the medicine is contained inside a plastic shell that dissolves slowly in the stomach. Some capsules can be taken apart so the contents can be mixed with a favourite food. Others need to be swallowed whole so the medicine is not absorbed until the stomach acid breaks down the capsule shell.

Other types of medicine include the following:

Topical medicines

These are creams, lotions or ointments that are applied directly onto the skin. They come in tubs, bottles or tubes depending on the type of medicine. The active part of the medicine is mixed with another substance that makes it easy to apply to the skin.

Suppositories

The active part of the medicine is combined with another substance and pressed into a ‘bullet shape’ so it can be inserted into the rectum (back passage). Suppositories must not be swallowed.

Drops

These are often used where the active part of the medicine works best if it reaches the affected area directly. They tend to be used for eye, ear or nose.

Inhalers

The active part of the medicine is released under pressure directly into the lungs. Young children may need to use a ‘spacer’ device to take the medicine properly. Inhalers can be difficult to use at first so your pharmacist will show you how to give them.

Injections

There are various types of injection, differing in how and where it is injected. Subcutaneous or SC injections are given just under the surface of the skin. Intramuscular or IM injections are given into a muscle. Intrathecal injections are given into the fluid around the spinal cord. Intravenous or IV injections are given into a vein. Some injections can be given at home but most are given at your doctor’s surgery (GP) or in hospital.

Implants or patches

Some medicines are absorbed by the body through the skin, such as nicotine patches for help in giving up smoking or contraceptive implants.

Buccal or sublingual tablets or liquids

These look similar to normal tablets or liquids but they are not swallowed. Buccal medicines are held in the cheek so that the mouth lining absorbs the active ingredient. Sublingual medicines work in the same way but are put underneath the tongue. Buccal and sublingual medicines tend only to be given in very specific circumstances.

Final words

When your doctor is prescribing medicine, remember to ask about the different formats available. If you know from experience that your child prefers tablets to liquids, please tell your doctor. Wherever possible, he or she will prescribe the medicine in a format that makes it easier for your child to take it. You can also discuss this with your pharmacist when you hand in the prescription.

More information

  • Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) switchboard: 020 7405 9200

  • Pharmacy dept: 020 7829 8680

  • Pharmacy Medicines Information: 020 7829 8608     

Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: April 2014

Ref: 2014F0731 April 2014
Compiled by the Pharmacy department in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group

Please read this information in conjunction with any patient information leaflet provided by the manufacturer. However, please note that this information explains about the use of medicines in children and young people so may differ from the manufacturer’s information.

Each person reacts differently to medicines so your child will not necessarily suffer every side effect mentioned. This information does not constitute health or medical advice and will not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. If you have any questions, please ask your doctor. No liability can be taken as a result of using this information.