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Pill, spray, or patch?

How to choose the right med for you

Published: November 2012

When you need to take medicine, is it better to pop a pill, swallow a liquid, or maybe try a nasal spray, patch, or tongue strip? Or does it matter?

“Consumers go into drugstores and it’s just overwhelming, a sense of not knowing what to pick,” says Barbara Young, Pharm.D., editor of consumer-medication information for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

But Karen Russo, Ph.D., a vice president at the US Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization that sets quality standards for drugs, says that what’s most important is taking the right drug (in the right amount) for what’s ailing you. Beyond that, the form you take it in may not matter quite so much.

That said, you may prefer certain types over others. Here’s the scoop on the 10 most common drug-delivery systems, plus the kinds of products they’re used for and why you might want to try them if you haven’t already.


What they are: Flavored tablets that break down quickly in your mouth to become a solution that’s absorbed faster in the stomach. You can find chewable versions of drugs taken to treat colds, allergies, pain, and digestive problems.

Why try them? They’re a good choice for adults who don’t want to swallow pills and for school-aged kids.


What they are: Flavored drugs that dissolve in your mouth and are absorbed quickly. They’re typically used for things like colds, allergies, congestion, pain, indigestion, and motion sickness. Some people prefer them because they don’t need to be taken with water. But you’ll pay more for them.

Why try them? They’re easy to use on the go.

Effervescent tablets

What they are: Tablets that dissolve in water to create a fizzy liquid that’s absorbed more quickly than regular tablets (think Alka-Seltzer).

Why try them? If you can’t swallow pills and want to feel better fast, these are for you.

Gel caps

What they are: Gelatin-coated capsules filled with liquid medication. The coating dissolves in the stomach and the drug is absorbed quickly.

Why try them? They’re a fast-acting remedy.


What they are: Medication that your body absorbs as soon as it reaches your digestive system. The flavors might turn off some people, and liquids aren’t as portable as other forms. But it’s easy to find products sold in liquid form.

Why try them? Liquids are a good choice if you have difficulty swallowing pills. They are also ideal for children.

Nasal sprays

What they are: Fast-relief drugs absorbed in the nasal passages that generally work more rapidly than drugs you swallow because they bypass the digestive system. You can find sprays for congestion and allergies.

Why try them? If you have trouble swallowing pills or want fast relief, sprays will do the trick.


What they are: Adhesives for the skin that release fast-acting, continuous medication. They’re most common for pain, smoking cessation, and nausea or motion sickness formulas.

Who should try them: Adults who don’t want to take painkillers several times daily, have difficulty swallowing pills, or want fast, site-specific relief.


What they are: Tablets and caplets made from compressed powdered ingredients. Larger tablets are pressed into oblong caplets so they’re easier to swallow. Most medication is offered in this form, which is often the least-expensive option. But tablets may be slower acting because they need to dissolve before the drug can be absorbed.

Why try them? They’re great if you can’t swallow pills, and they’re a good value for the money.

Tongue strips

What they are: Flavored strips that dissolve quickly and are readily absorbed. Tongue strips are usually brand-name products for colds, allergies, fever, nasal congestion, pain relief, or indigestion, and they’re often more expensive.

Why try them? So you can take meds on the go.

Editor's Note:

These materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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