OTC Medicine

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Over-the-counter migraine remedies can be bought without a prescription from a doctor. Over-the-counter medications, also called nonprescription drugs, are considered safe and effective for people to use without direct guidance from a physician.1

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines if a drug can be over-the-counter, or OTC, based on the following qualities:

  • Can be used by consumers for self-diagnosed ailments
  • Benefits must outweigh their risks
  • Can be appropriately labeled for correct use
  • The potential for misuse and abuse is low
  • Doctors or other health practitioners aren’t necessary for people to safely and effectively use

Some nonprescription medications first came to the market as prescriptions, requiring a doctor’s permission. After these prescriptions have been used for years with a good record of safety and aren’t considered a risk for addiction, certain products are then approved by the FDA for use without a prescription. Other medications come to the market as over-the-counter medications without ever requiring a prescription.

In many cases, nonprescription versions of drugs contain lower levels of the active ingredient found in the prescription version.

Prescription drugs or over-the-counter, what’s the difference?

Prescription drugs are those that can’t be bought without a written doctor’s prescription. These drugs need a doctor’s supervision to properly diagnose the condition and properly use the drug. Over-the-counter drugs treat conditions that the average person is likely to correctly diagnose. These nonprescription medications also contain instructions that are simple to follow.

There are several over-the-counter migraine medicines, some that treat migraine in general and others that treat specific types of migraine such as over-the-counter drugs for menstrual migraine. Some examples include:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen (NSAIDs), sold under the brand names Motrin and Advil
  • Naproxen (NSAIDs), sold under the brand name Aleve
  • Acetaminophen, sold under the brand name Tylenol
  • Acetaminophen plus caffeine, and Aspirin, sold under the brand name Excedrin Migraine

Many migraine sufferers want to know what is the best over-the-counter medicine to get rid of migraine attacks. However, different medications work differently in each patient. Medications that provide relief for one person may not do the same for another.

Just because a medication is available without a prescription doesn’t mean that it has no potential for harm, including serious side effects. It's important to read the label of all over-the-counter medications to determine the correct dosing and timing of the dose, warnings, and how to properly store the medication.1 Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with side effects of any OTC treatment. In addition, make sure your doctor knows about all medications and treatments you take, including over-the-counter medications.

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Have you taken any over-the-counter medicines for your migraines?

As always, the best source for advice on treating your migraines is your own migraine specialist. This information on drugs and the medication descriptions are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no medication or supplement without first checking with your health care provider and should let them know of any other prescriptions, OTCs, and herbals you are taking to ensure there are no interactions.

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