The Best Deals on Over-the-Counter Medications

OTC Medication Price ComparisonWith a cold coming on, you're summoning all your energy just to venture out to the drug store, but the thought of having to buy those pricey, over-the-counter meds is giving you a big, fat headache.

Don't want to get ripped off again?

Getting the best deals on everything from cold and allergy medications to headache remedies is simply a matter of knowing how and where to shop. Here's the scoop on finding the best deals on OTC medications.Shop the Big 'Marts' for Meds

When it comes to finding bargains on over-the-counter medications, it's hard to beat the nation's two biggest discounters for savings. "If you want to save on drugs, Wal-Mart and Target should be your first stop," Jody Rohlena, senior editor at Consumer Reports' ShopSmartmagazine, told WalletPop.

ShopSmart conducted an extensive, nationwide price comparison of three major pain relievers -- Advil, Motrin and Aleve -- at drugstores, supermarkets and the national discounters.

Some of the telling findings: 100 tablets of Advil at drugstore chain Rite Aid sold for $9.99. The same size bottle at Target was $8.17 -- a sizable savings of $1.82.

Another example: A 100-tablet bottle of Aleve costs $9.69, on average, at supermarkets nationwide. The same size bottle at Wal-Mart sold for about $8.38, or $1.38 less.

While Wal-Mart and Target blew drug chains out of the water when it came to over-the-counter medications deals, Rohlena says ShopSmart's price scan found that the major drug chains tend to be pretty similar in price to each other. For instance, 100 tablets, of Advil at Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens drugstores were priced at $9.99, $9.91 and $9.79, respectively, too close to call a winner. At the same time, supermarkets tend to price their over-the-counter drugs on par with drugstores, ShopSmart found.

Wal-Mart and Target also offer the best deals on cold and allergy medications, as well as on heartburn relievers. The allergy drug, Claritin, for instance, can cost as much as 82 cents per pill at Walgreens, compared to just 65 cents at Wal-Mart, ShopSmart reports. And an 8-ounce bottle of Adult Robitussin CF Cough & Cold costs about $6.69 at Wal-Mart, compared to $8.49 at CVS and $9.23 at independent pharmacies.

While it comes as little surprise that independent drugstores are the priciest destination for meds, the difference between their prices and that of the drug store chains Rohlena says, "were not that big a deal."

Store Brands Are a Good Buy

If you're wary of the ingredients in store-brand drugs, consider this: Best Buy Drugs, a division of Consumers Union (Consumer Reports' parent company), examined the safety and effectiveness of over-the-counter medications and found that store brands were just as safe and effective as brand names.

It turns out the generic ingredients used in the store-brand versions of drugs "were the same and equally effective as the name brand," Rohlena says.

And across all retail chains, store brands proved to be a big bargain, saving you as much as 66% of the cost of a number of over-the-counter medications.

Let's say you're buying Claritin, for example. At CVS, a 365-tablet bottle will set you back about $52.99, Dan de Grandpe, chief executive officer and editor in chief of, told WalletPop. "Even using CVS's occasional 40% off coupon for CVS-brand items, that's [still] $31.79," de Grandpe says.

By contrast, Costco charges about $12.65 for 360 tablets of Kirkland Signature AllerClear Non-Drowsy, its store-brand version of Claritin, whose active ingredient is Loratadine. Even with a 40%-off CVS coupon, you'll pay an eye-popping $19.14 cents more for the CVS brand that contains just five more pills.

Some other telling numbers: A 100-count bottle of Motrin at Wal-Mart costs about $8.24, compared to $2.76 for the retailer's store-brand version of the drug, a whopping 66% savings, ShopSmart found.

When comparing pain reliever prices of the big, national brands to the store brands at drugstore chains, Rohlena says the smallest price difference was 18% less for the store brand. "That's a real savings," she added.

Tap Online Giant for Savings

In addition to brick-and-mortar stores, you might want to consider shopping for big deals. If you're looking for name-brand, over-the-counter medications, be sure to compare retail prices against Amazon's Subscribe & Save delivery program, which takes 15% off the current price of a product and offers free shipping, De Grandpre recommends.

What's more, Subscribe & Save can be combined with product coupons. For instance, a 45-tablet box of allergy medication Zyrtec, which comes with a $4 coupon, "drops the price to $8.75 once you clip the coupon and pay via Subscribe & Save," De Grandpre says.

What to Know When Buying in Bulk

Most people think that buying in bulk will save them money, and while that's usually true, when it comes to over-the-counter medications, there are two important factors to consider.

First, compare the unit price of the bulk-sized bottle to the small- and medium-sized bottles, Rohlena suggests. (The prices can usually be found on the ticker running on the product shelf.) If the unit price is higher for the bulk-sized version, you're not getting a better deal for buying more.

Also, if you're buying in bulk, check the bottle's expiration date, Rohlena says, "because if you're not going to use all that medication before it expires, you're wasting money."

Be especially careful to check expiration dates when shopping at dollar stores, Rohlena adds. When scanning the dollar stores, ShopSmart found some expired--or about to expire--meds on the shelves.

So the simple antidote for inexpensive, over-the-counter drugs? Shop Wal-Mart and Target for deals, always buy the store-brand version of the medication when available, and tap Amazon's Subscribe & Save program to get discounted meds delivered right to your door.
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