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.


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


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.


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.


The active part of the medicine is contained inside a plastic shell that dissolves slowly in the stomach. You can take some capsules apart and mix the contents with your child’s favourite food. Others need to be swallowed whole, so the medicine isn’t absorbed until the stomach acid breaks down the capsule shell.

Other types of medicine:

Topical medicines

These are creams, lotions or ointments 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, making it easy to apply to the skin.


The active part of the medicine is combined with another substance and pressed into a ‘bullet shape’ so it can be inserted into the bottom. Suppositories mustn't be swallowed.


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.


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 use them.


There are different types of injection, in how and where they're 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 or in hospital.

Implants or patches

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

Tablets you don't swallow (known as buccal or sublingual tablets or liquids)

These look like normal tablets or liquids, but you don’t swallow them. Buccal medicines are held in the cheek so 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.

Further tips

When we’re prescribing medicine, remember to ask us about the different formats available. If you know from experience your child prefers tablets to liquids, please let us know. Wherever possible, we’ll 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.

Compiled by:
the Pharmacy department in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group
Last review date:
April 2019