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Audio podcast - Types of medicines

Most medicines come in a variety of types or formats. However medicines that are rare or unusual oftern only come in one type. Your doctor will prescribe your child medicine in a format that makes it easiest for them to take.

When your doctor is prescribing medicines for your child, remember to ask about the different formats that are available. If you know from experience that your child prefers tablets to liquids, please tell your doctor. You can also discuss this with your pharmacist when you hand in the prescription.

Types of medicine:

With liquid medicine the active ingredient 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.

In tablets the active ingredient is combined with another substance and pressed into a round or oval shape. There are different types of tablet. Soluble or dispersible tablets can safely be dissolved in water. Some coated or ‘enteric’ tablets cannot be dissolved or dispersed.

Capsules are often a similar shape to tables but the ingredient 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.

Topic medicines 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 ingredients mixed with another substance that makes it easy to apply to the skin.

Suppositories are medicines that are inserted into the rectum. The active ingredient is combined with another substance and pressed into a ‘bullet shape’. Suppositories must never be swallowed.

Drops are used when active ingredient works best if it reaches the affected area directly. They tend to be used for the eyes, ears or nose.

Inhalers deliver the active ingredient under pressure directly into the lungs. Younger 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 use them. You can also see how this is done on our video podcast: Using an inhaler.

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

Implants or patches are used when the active ingredient can be absorbed through the skin. Nicotine patches are used to help someone give up smoking, and contraceptive implants can be used as a long term method of contraception.

Some medicines can be given through the lining of the mouth. These are called buccal, or sublingual tablets. Buccal medicines are held in the cheek and sublingual medicines are held underneath the tongue. Buccal and sublingual medicines tend only to be given in very specific circumstances.


Ref: 2010F0731 © GOSH Trust December 2010 Compiled by the Pharmacy department in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group