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What to know about prescription supplements

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Conditions they can help withPrescription vs. OTC supplementsFDA approval for supplementsSummary
Supplements contain naturally occurring substances like vitamins and minerals. Healthcare professionals may prescribe supplements for certain conditions, such as anemia and osteopenia.
Medically reviewed by Ami Patel PharmD, BCPS
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

Supplements can be a helpful way to improve your overall health and wellness. They work by boosting the levels of essential vitamins and minerals in your body, such as vitamin D or calcium.

You can buy them in most drugstores and pharmacies. For certain health conditions like vitamin or mineral deficiencies, healthcare professionals may recommend prescription supplement options as a form of treatment.

These supplements may differ from those you can buy over the counter (OTC).

What conditions can prescription supplements help with?

A glass of water on a surface surrounded by several pills.
Marc Tran/Stocksy United

A wide range of health conditions can develop if you lack a healthy level of a certain substance in your body. Healthcare professionals refer to this as a deficiency. Conditions caused by deficiencies may be mild or severe.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these deficiencies can lead to changes in your energy levels and cognitive function (ability to think). In some instances, it can also cause chronic (long lasting) health conditions.

If a doctor diagnoses a health condition that is the result of a deficiency, they will often prescribe a supplement of the substance you are low in. These supplements help treat the condition by increasing the levels of that substance in your body. They also help reduce your symptoms.

Supplements commonly contain essential vitamins and minerals or micronutrients.

A doctor may prescribe you a supplement for the following health conditions:


Anemia is a health condition that causes symptoms such as:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath 
  • cold hands and feet

These symptoms develop because your body is not producing enough red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to your muscles and tissues.

Most often, this is the result of an iron deficiency. If left without treatment, anemia can lead to heart failure.

The most common treatment for iron deficiency anemia is prescription iron supplements, which can help boost your iron levels and improve oxygen in your soft tissues and muscles. Examples include ferrous sulfate (Feosol), ferrous fumarate (Femiron), and Ferocon.

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If you experience creaking joints and pain, you may be at risk of osteoporosis, which affects over 10 million adults in the United States. Osteoporosis is the weakening and thinning of your bones that often develops as you age.

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that your body creates in response to exposure to sunlight. It is important for keeping your bones healthy, and most of us do not get enough of it naturally.

Vitamin D helps:

  • improve calcium absorption from food
  • ensure your bones continue to renew and grow
  • keep the surrounding muscle strong to support your skeleton

Both vitamin D and calcium are essential for your bone health. If you are not receiving enough vitamin D, it can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis.

The Institute of Medicine recommends taking prescription strength vitamin D and increasing your dietary calcium intake to help treat osteoporosis. This is because dietary calcium can reduce your risk of developing side effects like kidney stones.

Gastric inflammation

If you experience any type of trauma or health condition that involves your stomach or intestinal area, you will likely receive a prescription for vitamin B12 injections.

When you undergo surgery in the abdominal area, experience a gastrointestinal condition such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, or have an infection in your stomach or intestines, there is an increased level of inflammation in and around the tissues. This inflammation can stop you from absorbing vitamin B12 from your diet.

Your body requires vitamin B12 to produce blood cells, so if you are not absorbing enough vitamin B12, your soft tissues may not be receiving enough oxygen. This can lead to symptoms like weakness, fatigue, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet.

Taking OTC oral vitamin B12 supplements may not be sufficient because your stomach might not absorb them. In this case, taking a prescription injectable vitamin B12 may be helpful.

What is the difference between prescription and over-the-counter supplements?

Generally, the difference between supplements you receive through prescription or OTC is that the prescription version can be more potent. This is because their purpose is to help with deficiencies that require a higher strength to treat.

For example, cholecalciferol (Delta D3) is a high strength, synthetic vitamin D supplement. It contains vitamin D3, a more potent form of vitamin D compared with standard OTC versions, which contain D2 only.

The prescription form has a dosage of 50,000 IU once weekly, whereas the OTC version is usually taken daily, with a dose between 400 IU and 4000 IU.

In some instances, your body may not be able to absorb the OTC formulation of vitamin B12, which means you may need a different form, like an injectable. Due to the higher dose, a doctor will closely monitor you for side effects, as well as for the effectiveness of the prescribed supplement.

Are supplements FDA-approved?

While most vitamin and mineral supplements are available OTC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review them for effectiveness. Instead, the FDA regulates supplements only to ensure accurate labeling and safe manufacturing, like other food products.

This is why it is important to speak with a doctor before you take any dietary supplements without a prescription, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

In some instances, the FDA will regulate the effectiveness of a medication if a synthetic (human-made) version replaces the naturally occurring vitamin or if it is combined with other ingredients.

For example, calcipotriol (Dovonex) is a type of synthetic vitamin D combined with a steroid medication to create topical creams. This medication is available by prescription only, with approval from the FDA for use in treating psoriasis.


Dietary supplements can be helpful in treating and preventing deficiencies, particularly as you age. This can help decrease the risk of health conditions like osteoporosis. Doctors may also prescribe certain vitamins and minerals to help treat health conditions like anemia that are caused by mineral deficiencies.

The supplements that doctors prescribe may be of higher strength or a different formulation than what you can easily find OTC in your local pharmacy or supermarket.

However, the FDA does not approve dietary supplements in the same way it does medications for effectiveness and side effects. This is why it is important to speak with a doctor before taking any dietary supplements without a prescription.

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