Medically Approved

What you should know about prescription supplements

4 minute read
A man sitting at a table looking a medicine bottles

Dietary supplements are available over the counter. So why do prescription versions exist?

Sara Gaynes Levy

By Sara Gaynes Levy

To ensure your body gets the essential vitamins and minerals it needs, it's important to eat a healthy, well-rounded diet. But sometimes you may need a little help. Enter dietary supplements: pills, capsules, gummies and tinctures that contain concentrated doses of specific compounds intended to keep your body running smoothly.

Broadly speaking, there are 2 classes of dietary supplements. First, there are the over-the-counter (OTC) supplements you’re probably most familiar with. These include vitamins, minerals, herbs and more. You can find a wide selection of OTC supplements on the Optum Store and have them shipped directly to your home. You can also find them on shelves in drugstores and grocery stores. 

Anybody can buy OTC supplements. That sets them apart from prescription supplements, which you can purchase only with a prescription from a doctor. 

So why do the 2 classes exist? To find out, we turned to Monika Nuffer, PharmD. She’s a senior instructor in the departments of clinical pharmacy and family medicine at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Aurora.

What’s the difference between a prescription supplement and one that’s over the counter?

Nuffer: All prescriptions go through a review process with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It evaluates safety and efficacy, and once a prescription has been approved, it can be prescribed by a doctor.

And the precaution doesn’t end there. The FDA continues to regulate approved prescriptions for safety. Providers, as well as consumers, can report any adverse reactions via the FDA’s MedWatch reporting system to determine if a product is unsafe and should be removed.

OTC supplements are a little different. They’re not regulated in the same manner. The FDA doesn’t evaluate them for safety or efficacy, so we can’t say for sure that the label accurately reflects what is in the product. Is it really 500 milligrams of ginseng? Did they use the right part of the plant? Did they harvest it at the right time of year? We don’t know.

That doesn’t necessarily mean OTC supplements are harmful. But they might not work the way you expect them to. The quality just might not be the same as it is with prescriptions.

What are some situations where your doctor might prescribe a supplement?

Nuffer: Say you’re receiving an annual blood test and your doctor finds that you are deficient in certain vitamins or minerals. If it’s a mild deficiency, maybe they recommend an OTC product. If it’s more serious, they might prescribe a supplement.

The doctor might also prescribe a supplement if you’re taking medication that has the potential to deplete a certain vitamin or mineral you need. With a prescription, the doctor can be sure you’re getting a supplement that’s appropriate for your situation, and they can help monitor its effects. (Schedule a virtual appointment with Optum's network of licensed physicians. You can discuss any health concern, including possible nutritional deficiencies.)

What are some of the most commonly prescribed supplements?

Nuffer: Vitamin D is probably the most popular example. Calcium is another one that is frequently given for bone health. Folic acid and fish oil [omega-3 fatty acid] may also be part of a treatment plan. 

Will insurance cover my prescription supplements?

Nuffer: That’s difficult to answer since there are different types of insurance. Medicare will in many situations. When it does, it might actually be cheaper to purchase a prescription supplement over an OTC product.

If you realize that something isn’t covered by insurance, you should explore your options. Sometimes a provider writes a prescription for something that isn’t covered by a patient’s insurance. In that case, the pharmacist might go back to the doc and ask if they can switch it for something that is covered. 

If you’re already taking OTC supplements, is it worth asking your doctor to prescribe prescription versions?

Nuffer: In some cases, yes. For example, if you’re pregnant and need a prenatal vitamin with folic acid. Maybe you can’t afford the supplement, but you have prescription coverage. In that case, you might go the prescription route. Some of our Medicare patients know they can get vitamin D under a prescription, so they do that to avoid paying out of pocket. 

Everybody has different reasons, but it’s really important to talk about what you’re taking and what you need with your doctor or pharmacist. You want to make sure they’re safe for you personally. 

Man looking at supplements bottle
The Optum Store carries a wide range of laboratory-tested vitamins and supplements

Additional source
Overview of dietary supplements:
National Institutes of Health