What's the truth about free NHS Calpol?

a spoonful of medicine Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Pharmacists won't prescribe Calpol or hand out free plasters, but they can treat many other minor ailments

It all started with a post from a mum on Facebook and led to a huge hike in hits on the NHS Choices website.

When buying some Calpol in a large pharmacy chain, the poster said she had discovered, to her "amazement" that "if you register your details under the 'minor ailments scheme', all medicines etc for children are free".

She added: "They are not allowed to advertise it, but you can save a small fortune on Calpol, Piriton, Sudocrem, plasters etc. I wish I had known eight years ago!"

So, is it true?

For a start, pharmacists would not prescribe Calpol. In some areas, they might give you the generic, unbranded equivalent, which is much cheaper and therefore less costly to the NHS.

Plasters are not on the list of hand-outs either. Dressings for minor burns perhaps - but not children's plasters.

So let's rewind a little. What help can pharmacists offer when it comes to common health problems?

Easy access

The "minor ailments scheme" provides the answer. It has been around for about 10 years in some local pharmacies.

It is aimed at those who can't afford to pay for certain medicines or who can't access their GP easily.

The idea is that local pharmacists take some of the pressure off busy GPs and packed A&E departments, by offering over-the-counter advice and consultations.

This is particularly useful when GP practices are closed, in the evenings and at weekends, when pharmacies are often open.

The scheme should enable people to get treatment or advice more quickly and more easily.

The type of ailments they can treat may include coughs, colds, headaches, hay fever, insect bites and stings, eczema, earache and diarrhoea.

So if you have a child with a high temperature on a Saturday afternoon (when else?), you can visit your local pharmacist to seek advice.

The pharmacist will need to see the child, of course, and will then decide if prescribing a medicine is necessary.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Local pharmacists are a useful first port of call for advice on minor health issues

If you're elderly and worried about what you can safely take for a cold with other prescription medicines, then your pharmacist should also be the first port of call.

Free on the NHS?

The rules on paying for what's prescribed are not always straightforward.

In general, if you don't pay for prescriptions - and children under 16 and adults over 60 don't - you will probably receive them free of charge, on the NHS, just as you would from a GP.

If you normally pay a prescription charge, then you will be charged for this service too.

But this doesn't apply to all minor ailment schemes, because they are not all the same across the country.

In Scotland, all community pharmacies run the scheme, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the scheme is run by the NHS locally, so it won't be available everywhere.

Some areas only provide the service free to parents who receive low-income related benefits.

Other NHS areas may not fund dressings or provide anything for children who present with coughs and colds.

To find out what your local scheme offers, it is advisable to contact your nearest pharmacy and ask.

'Only if you need it'

Neal Patel, from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, says people shouldn't get carried away.

"You can't just walk into a pharmacy and stock up on Calpol for your kids. That's not the way it works."

Pharmacists, he says, have to make sure the treatment is appropriate, following a consultation similar to one carried out by a GP.

If pharmacists aren't sure what they are dealing with or if a patient has a more serious concern, they will be referred to their GP.

Ash Soni, a pharmacist in Streatham, south London, who runs the scheme in his pharmacy, said he often acts as kind of patient filter for GPs.

"It's an opportunity for people to just walk in on the day and see a pharmacist for advice, rather than waiting for a GP appointment."

But he isn't there to hand out medicines, he explains.

"You'll get it only if you need it."

Big savings

In case the public is unsure what the minor ailment service is, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has produced an animated video to explain more.

The NHS Choices website has more information on common problems your pharmacist can help with and a way of searching for pharmacies in your local area to find out if they offer the service.

The minor ailments scheme is clearly not widely known about because these web pages have experienced a massive rise in hits in the past week or so.

NHS Choices told the BBC that the search term "minor ailments scheme" went from being outside the top 10,000 to the fifth most popular in the space of a few days.

And research suggests the scheme, if rolled out nationally, could save the NHS in the region of £1bn.

This is because the cost of a consultation with a GP is nearly three times higher than the cost of a consultation with a community pharmacist.

So as long as the scheme is not abused and we use the pharmacists' service responsibly, the permanently cash-strapped NHS should benefit in the long run.

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