Money Mensch: A cheap remedy for costly hayfever pills

By Martin Lewis, May 27, 2009

Hayfever sufferers should not have to stump up £100s for medicines. The cost of remedies is nothing to be sneezed at, which is why there are a number of different strategies to slash the cost. It is possible to cut the price of medicines to a fiver for a six month daily supply. The same logic works for other pharmaceuticals.

Many people think that when it comes to health they should play safe and stick with the big name brands. Examine any parent’s drug drawer, and it will be jam-packed full of different expensive branded medications for their kids. While we are sometimes willing to try other things for ourselves, when it comes to kids we will not budge.
In many cases, that is nonsense. In any drug, it is the active ingredient which is important and does the job, and providing it is out of patent, any company is allowed to make a tablet with exactly the same thing in it. These are often called ‘generic’ medicines. They do not use fancy branding.

So while many people will happily pay serious money for Nurofen, the active ingredient is Ibuprofen. Why bother paying for the extra packaging, sugar coating or even nicely designed capsules to make them go down more easily? Ultimately, with a glass of water or orange juice, you can get exactly the same thing for 90 per cent less. However, do not use grapefruit juice, as it makes some medicines less effective.
So having thrown brand loyalty out of the window, these are the key steps to ensure you’re minimising the price for hayfever and other drugs:

Grab generic versions.
The active ingredient is always listed on the pack. Once you have found it, check for the same generic equivalent; it will usually be a lot cheaper.

There are four main types of hayfever drugs:
- Famous Brand: Zirtek. Main active ingredient: Cetirizine dihydrochloride. This is usually a one a day tablet, and there are lots of generic versions.
- Famous Brand: Claritin. Main active ingredient: Loratadine. Again, one a day, and commonly available as a generic.
- Famous Brand: Benadryl. Main active ingredient: Acrivastine. This is a newer type of anti-histamine, and tests have shown it acts faster, but it is still under patent, so there is no generic equivalent.
- Famous Brand: Piriton. Main active ingredient: Chlorophenamine. One of the older remedies for hayfever, it is losing ground to Cetrizine nowadays, though generics are available.

So in most cases you can cut the cost. Do always double-check your own regular supply’s active ingredient though, as some similarly named brands can be different.

Still not convinced? Consider this: A week’s supply of hayfever treatment Claritin costs £2.99; the same product without a brand name costs less than a quid in supermarkets. The difference can be even bigger with painkillers.

Is it cheaper on prescription?
If you are a hayfever sufferer and you need Benadryl, you are going to be paying £3 to £5 a packet. Alternatively, you could try asking your doctor for a three-month prescription for the same drug, and only pay the standard prescription charge (if you pay one).
While this works for long term doses, do not always assume prescriptions are the cheapest way. For some things doctors may prescribe, such as hydrocortizone cream, it is far cheaper to buy it over the counter.

Bulk order from online pharmacies
There are a number of online chemists and websites advertising medicines more cheaply. For example, at the time of writing, Chemist Direct will sell you Cetirizine dihydrochloride at just under £5 for a six month supply and Chemist 4 u not much more. When you consider that the cheapest you will pay, even in a supermarket, is around £1 a week, this is a big saving. When you order from an online chemist, you will need to fill in a questionnaire describing your condition, and they reserve the right not to fulfil the order if you do not provide that information. Tall orders should be checked by a qualified pharmacist before despatch.

The two chemists I have mentioned are registered with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, but when I asked, it said even that does not guarantee legitimacy, so always take care where you order from.

Try local pharmacies
If you are not an online shopper, check out a couple of supermarkets as there can be real price variance there. If you are going for cheap generics anyway, consider supporting your local pharmacist. It may be a few pence more, but it does mean there’s someone nearby who can give you help if you are ill.

Prepay your prescriptions
One final and important way to cut the cost if you regularly pay for prescriptions is to get an annual pre-paid season ticket. One you have got one, there is nothing else to pay all year.
In Scotland, it is £13 for four months or £38 for a year, compared with a £4 standard charge. In England, three months is £28 and a year £104, meaning anyone getting two prescriptions a month at the £7.20 rate would be much better off.

Last updated: 4:31pm, June 2 2009