Woman wears a patch spray bottle, dropper bottle, pills in background

There is a whole medical branch called pharmacokinetics that is the study of drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion. Researchers and pharmacologists are continually looking for ways to improve how medications get delivered, absorbed, and utilized by our bodies.

We find a dizzying array of choices these days for over-the-counter (OTC) medications at the drug store. Pharmaceutical companies do have marketing departments, so it is good to be aware that snazzy packaging, bright colors, and lots of TV ads don’t necessarily make a drug more effective, maybe just more expensive. 

However, many of the new ways to deliver medications beyond the classic pill have been very helpful, even lifesaving, to patients. The point is to deliver the right medication, in the right dosage, to treat the right ailment, in a form that the patient can use and tolerate. These choices are also available for prescription medications as well as OTC ones.

Let’s take a look at some of the options, and why they might be a good choice.

Tablets and Caplets

The no-frills pill is made from powered ingredients—active and inactive—that are compressed into a round shape. The larger ones are made in an elongated oval for easier swallowing. This is the most common delivery system and the least expensive, but pills are not the fastest, as they need to be dissolved and absorbed through the stomach before entering the bloodstream. 

Also, an important warning. Do not break or crush pills to make them easier to take without first consulting your healthcare provider.

Chewables and Dissolvables 

Think of a chewable and most likely a purple dinosaur vitamin will come to mind. But flavored tablets that are chewed and broken down more quickly are also available to treat colds, allergies, pain, and digestive problems. There is even a subscription service for a chewable that treats erectile dysfunction! 

Called oral disintegrating tablets (ODTs), or sublingual tablets (Latin for “under the tongue”), these drugs are flavored and dissolve under your tongue or in your mouth. Many adults, elders, and children have trouble swallowing pills, so these are options. They are also faster acting than swallowing pills. These are particularly effective for anti-nausea medications as people don’t have to swallow to get relief.

Liquids

Here again, speed is the key, and ease of swallowing. Liquid medicines can come in many forms such as solutions, suspensions, and syrups. Many medications are available in liquid form, though cough and cold syrups are the most popular as they also act to coat and soothe the throat. 

Nasal sprays and Inhalers

Both nasal sprays and inhalers work very quickly and are most commonly used for congestion, allergies, and asthma. Because our airways and lungs have a lot of mucous membrane and surface area, they absorb drugs quickly. This is why the corticosteroids used in inhalers to treat an asthma attack bring immediate relief. Nasal sprays like fluticasone are commonly used for treating allergies. 

Transdermal Patches

These are large Band-Aid® type adhesives for the skin that release fast-acting, continuous medication. They’re most commonly used for pain control, quitting smoking, and nausea or motion sickness relief. But are also used to prevent episodes of angina (chest pain) in people who have coronary artery disease, and to transmit birth control drugs.

The benefits are they deliver a steady amount of medication over time, and they can be site-specific, such as a patch on an area that has painful arthritis. This avoids having the drug go through your system and be metabolized by the liver. 

Topicals

Like the patches, one of the benefits of topicals is that they don’t go through the digestive system; these creams or ointments are applied directly to your skin, where they are needed. A popular example is a topically administered ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). This anti-inflammatory cream has been shown to be effective in the treatment of joint and soft tissue injury, good news for those who find the tablets hard on their stomachs. 

Injectables

An example you might be aware of are Epi-Pens®, which treat severe, anaphylactic allergic reactions. However, there are many more medications, including insulin that are available for in-home use by injection. Treatments for migraine, fertility, and now female sexual desire have injectable forms. Sometimes it’s for the rapid onset, others because there aren’t any other ways for the medications to be absorbed. 

Feel free to ask your healthcare provider or local pharmacist about different medication forms available if what you are getting is not working well for you. 

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