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Here’s Why Your Medication Contains Active and Inactive Ingredients

When you take medication, whether it’s over-the-counter or prescription, you might notice that your medicine contains active and inactive ingredients. You may wonder why these ingredients are there and what purpose they serve. Paul Thompson, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist with Banner Pharmacy Services, answered some common questions about them.

What are active ingredients?

The active ingredients in medication are the components that trigger the effect you are looking for. For example, the active ingredient in blood pressure medication is the compound that works to lower your blood pressure. The active ingredient in an antidepressant is the part that helps relieve the symptoms of depression.

What are inactive ingredients?

The inactive ingredients, which are also called excipients, are the components that don’t have an effect on you. It might seem like they are unnecessary, but they are included in medication for a reason. They might be fillers, flavorings, coatings or preservatives.

“Inactive ingredients can help your body absorb and break down the active ingredients so they can work properly,” Dr. Thompson said. They often help stabilize the medication in a tablet or capsule.

How do I know which active and inactive ingredients my medication contains?

With over-the-counter medications, you’ll find a list of the active and inactive ingredients on the label. Prescription medications often come with a package insert that provides important information and may list the ingredients they include. If you have questions about any of the ingredients in your medication, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Identifying the active and inactive ingredients for over-the counter vitamins and mineral supplements can be a bit more challenging. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve these over-the-counter products, and their manufacturers don’t always list all of their ingredients.

Are there any risks I might face from active or inactive ingredients in medication?

The active and inactive ingredients in medication are approved by the FDA and considered safe; but you could be allergic or intolerant to these ingredients.

“Allergic reactions are rare, but they can be dangerous,” Dr. Thompson said. If you are allergic to a medication or an inactive ingredient, your immune system responds. You may notice swelling under your tongue or around your eyes or lips, trouble breathing or tightness in your chest, or anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction.

An intolerance is different than an allergy, even though people often use the word “allergy” to refer to both. If you are intolerant to a medication or an inactive ingredient, your body might not absorb it properly. That could lead to gastrointestinal symptoms such as an upset stomach, nausea or vomiting. “You are far more likely to experience an intolerance to medication or ingredients than an allergy,” Dr. Thompson said.

If you’re taking a new medication or have questions about a medication, you can talk to your doctor or pharmacist. If you’ve ever had a reaction to a medication or side effects from taking it, let your doctor or pharmacist know—other medications might have similar ingredients.

The bottom line

Over-the-counter and prescription medications contain both active and inactive ingredients to help them work effectively. These ingredients are considered safe, but it’s possible they could cause allergic or adverse reactions or intolerances. If you would like to connect with a health care professional who can help you evaluate your medications, Banner Health can help.

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