Friday, November 18, 2011

Over-the-Counter Drugs in Japan

Nothing is worse than getting sick in a far-away land and having to drag yourself off to a doctor. Following our recent medical theme, today's feature we will explain the world of Japanese over the counter (OTC) medications (一般用医薬品 ippan-yo iyakuhin).

Drug Classifications
There are three main classifications of OTC drugs
  • Type 1 Drugs (第一類医薬品 dai-ichi-rui iyakuhin)-- These drugs are classified as having side effects that could "interfere with daily life" as well as the potential for serious health risks if used improperly. A pharmacist must be on hand for a store to dispense these drugs, and the pharmacist must give adequate advice at time of sale about side effects and necessary precautions when taking the drug.
  • Type 2 Drugs (第二類医薬品 dai-ni-rui iyakuhin)-- These drugs are classified as having potential side effects that can interfere with daily but not with the severity of Type 1 medication. A pharmacist or a "registered seller" (登録販売者 toroku hanbai-sha) must be on staff to sell these drugs and provide consultation if necessary.
  • Type 3 Drugs (第三類医薬品 dai-san-rui iyakuhin)-- These drugs are consider to have non serious side effects and, in most cases, won't impair one's functionality in any major way. A pharmacist or a "registered seller"  must be on staff to sell these drugs and provide consultation if necessary.
In addition to the above mentioned category, there is another classification of drugs known as i-yakubu gaihin (医薬部外品) or shitei i-yakubu gaihin (指定医薬部外品). In English, these are ofter referred to as "quasi-drugs" or "supplements." This category includes vitamin drinks, nutritional supplements, cough drops, and all those energy tonics. These can be sold in any establishment including convenience stores and super markets.

Buying Drugs
As we have discussed in the previous article covering prescription drugs, pharmacies are plentiful in Japan and there is a solid chance that your local grocery or home center store has a non-prescription drug section, too.

But you may notice that these sections of the grocery store periodically get fenced off. This happens whenever a registered seller is not on staff since it is not legal to sell Type 2 and Type 3 drugs without a registered staffer on hand. Even 24 hour chains will generally close these sections off after 9 or 10 pm or so, so don't bank on getting pills for those late night headaches.

Type 1 drugs usually only are available on request. In other words, you're going to have to ask for it at the counter - bring along enough Japanese to do so.

Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare must now start creating rules for online OTC drug sales. This ruling effectively lifts the strict ban on online generic drug sales. The new rules will likely be finalized in the fall of 2013 and will allow for all but the most dangerous drugs to be sold online. Currently, several retailers including sell Type 1, 2, and 3 drugs.

If you are worried about what's in your drugs, or what they may do, check out our article on side-effects and ingredients.

  • Pharmaceutical sales in Japan have long been a highly regulated affair. Until the recently passed Revised Pharmaceutical Law came into effect, you weren't allowed to sell so much as an aspirin without a pharmacist on hand.
  • Price wise, OTC drugs in Japan are generally significantly more expensive than the USA but probably closer to prices found in Europe.
  • Japanese OTC drugs are usually weaker than their Western counterparts. So, double check the dosage of something you have taken elsewhere before.

And that is all for drug and health. Keep on checking back regularly for more great information on all kinds of topics and don't forget to peek back at our coverage of Japanese health insurance, doctors, and dentists if you are still lost.

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