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15 Most Prescribed Drugs in the UK

15 Most Prescribed Drugs In The UK

Most prescribed drugs in the UK

In this post, I am looking at the most prescribed drugs in the UK. Before that, let us find out what are prescription drugs and nonprescription drugs. Take a look.

Most common diseases and their prescription drugs are

  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs: Atorvastatin, Simvastatin
  • Hypothyroidism: hormone Levothyroxine
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD): Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) including Omeprazole and Lansoprazole
  • High blood pressure drugs: Amlodipine, Ramipril
  • Heart failure, angina: Bisoprolol
  • Anti-diabetic drugs: Metformin
  • Asthma: Salbutamol
  • Painkillers: Co-codamol and paracetamol
  • Depression: Sertraline and Citalopram.

Most prescribed drugs in UK


Prescribed Drugs In The UK

1. Atorvastatin


Atorvastatin a cholestrol lowering drug was the most prescribed drug in the UK with 48.8 mln prescriptions issued (2018).

Data available at OpenPrescribing.net shows a sharp increase in prescriptions for this drug in

recent years at the expense of Simvastatin drug where a decline in prescribing can be seen.

This is mainly due to changes in NICE recommendations on the management of high cholesterol in adults which now recommends atorvastatin as first-line treatment. The overall trend for the use of lipid-lowering drugs is on increase reflecting the problem of obesity and unhealthy lifestyle across the UK population.

2. Levothyroxine

Levothyroxine is used in the treatment of hypothyroidism is the second most commonly used drug in the UK. A high number of prescriptions for this item is related to the prevalence of the condition, which is estimated at around 2% in the UK population.

Unlike other conditions like high cholesterol or high blood pressure, hypothyroidism is managed almost always with levothyroxine, and rarely with liothyronine, which is very expensive and not commonly prescribed.

3. Omeprazole

Omeprazole belongs to a class of drugs called Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), mainly used in the management of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) including heartburn/acid reflux.

There is a link between GORD and obesity (Kennedy & Jones, 2010). With 29% of the adult population being obese and 36% being overweight in England (Parliament. UK, 2019) there is a clear contribution to the number of prescriptions produced for this drug.

4. Amlodipine


Amlodipine is used in the treatment of high blood pressure (BP).

Amlodipine is recommended as first-line drug treatment in high blood pressure in people who are 55 and over or patients who are Caribbean or African origin.

Prevalence rate – a proportion of people who have high BP increases with age.

Without a doubt, there is a link between the presence of Amlodipine in 15 most prescribed drugs in the UK with the aging of the UK population and the fact that the population over 65 years of age is the fastest-growing group as compared to other age groups (ONS, 2019).

High blood pressure is also linked with being overweight or obese which explains the further popularity of BP drugs.

5. Ramipril

Similar to Amlodipine, Ramipril is used in the treatment of high blood pressure. Ramipril belongs to a group of drugs called ACE-inhibitors. ACE-inhibitors are recommended as first-line treatment of high blood pressure in individuals below the age of 55.

6. Lansoprazole

Like Omeprazole, Lansoprazole is a Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) used in the treatment of GORD and dyspepsia. Both Omeprazole and Lansoprazole are used as first-line treatment in GORD, mostly due to the cost-effectiveness of both drugs (as compared to other PPIs) and lack of superiority of one over the other.

7. Simvastatin

Simvastatin is used to lower cholesterol in the body. As explained in the first paragraph a sharp decrease in prescribing is seen for this drug in favor of Atorvastatin which is more effective in reducing cholesterol than Simvastatin.

8. Bisoprolol

This is an interesting drug in the list of 15 most prescribed drugs in the UK. Bisoprolol belongs to a group of drugs called beta-blockers (Beta-adrenoceptor blocking drugs).

Although beta-blockers can be used in the treatment of high blood pressure, there are no longer first or even second lines of treatment.Other uses of beta-blockers include angina (chest pain experienced by patients due to narrowing of the blood vessels with ‘fats’), myocardial infarction (heart attack), heart failure, and arrhythmias.

Several indications for this drug reflect a high number of prescriptions produced. In the UK there is about 920000 patients diagnosed with heart failure (NICE, 2018). There are around 1.4mln people who survived a heart attack (BHF, 2019) and who most likely use beta-blockers in the long-term management of their condition.

9. Aspirin

Aspirin is mainly used and prescribed for secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, for example in patients who had a heart attack or are at risk of having one.

Despite widespread availability and affordability (100 tables of Aspirin 75mg cost just over £1), this drug brought the cost to NHS of around £14 mln last year (net cost of the drug only).

10. Metformin

A steady increase of metformin use for the treatment of diabetes is seen with the highest number of prescriptions issued for this drug in 2018 (21.78 mln) Metformin accounts for a net cost of 85.77 mln, the highest out of all top 15 most prescribed drugs.

However, this is a small proportion of the overall cost of diabetes treatment in the UK. In 2016/2017 the total net ingredient cost for the treatment of diabetes was close to £1 billion standing at £983.7 million (NHS Digital, 2017).

The prevalence of diabetes again highlights the obesity epidemic in the UK. Metformin comes in different forms and different strengths of tablets, affecting the net cost of this particular drug.

For example:

  • A box of 28 x metformin 500mg tablets costs NHS around £1, whereas
  • A box of 56 modified-release 1000mg tablets costs NHS around £6.40

11. Salbutamol

Salbutamol is mostly prescribed for the management of asthma and other respiratory conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). With over 5mln people receiving treatment for asthma in the UK (Asthma UK, 2016), it is understandable why this item made it to the top 15 most prescribed drugs in the UK.

 12. Paracetamol

Interestingly paracetamol was widely prescribed in 2018 despite the NHS announcement in 2017 to limit prescribing of items that can be purchased ‘over the counter’, to support cost-saving to NHS as part of NHS Five Year Forward View.

Over-the-counter paracetamol is widely available in most shops and pharmacies. As recommended by Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) guidelines, customers can buy two packs of paracetamol containing 16 tablets each.

The maximum number of paracetamol tablets that can be purchased from a pharmacy is 100. The cost for 100 paracetamol tablets (usually sold as packs of 32 tablets) from a pharmacy is just around £2.

13. Co-codamol

Co-codamol contains a combination of paracetamol and codeine and is used in the treatment of moderate to severe pain. Co-codamol is the most commonly prescribed opioid analgesics. The lower strength of Co-codamol is available over the counter without a prescription.

The use of opioids in the management of pain is somehow controversial as there is a lack of evidence on effectiveness in long term use (BMA, 2017). Despite this, in recent years a considerable increase in opioid prescribing for management of non-cancer pain is observed (ibid).

15. Sertraline And Citalopram

Prescriptions for antidepressant drugs such as sertraline and citalopram are on the rise and close the top 15 of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the UK.

Overall, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants almost doubled from 36mln in 2008 to 70.9mln in 2018. Leading to 2016, antidepressants were the fastest-growing group of drugs in the UK for the fourth successive year.

Citalopram and Sertraline belong to a group of antidepressants called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, which are recommended as first-line treatment of depression. Read more about the most popular antidepressants in the UK in my post ‘10 most common antidepressants in the UK‘.

Complete List Of MediCations

Drug Items (mln) Cost to NHS (mln) Treatment use
1 Atorvastatin 41.79 48.80 high cholesterol
2 Levothyroxine 32.16 62.65 hypothyroidism
3 Omeprazole 30.97 42.25 acid reflux
4 Amlodipine 29.03 38.61 high blood pressure
5 Ramipril 28.58 39.04 high blood pressure
6 Lansoprazole 25.42 27.96 acid reflux
7 Simvastatin 24.28 21.00 high cholesterol
8 Bisoprolol 23.58 15.13 heart failure, angina
9 Aspirin 23.37 13.90 antiplatelet
10 Metformin 21.78 85.77 diabetes
11 Salbutamol 21.54 52.39 asthma
12 Paracetamol 18.47 41.17 pain relief
13 Cocodamol 15.13 61.62 pain relief
14 Sertraline 14.70 15.08 depression
15 Citalopram 14.11 22.99 depression

Quick FAQ

What is the most serious side effect of atorvastatin?
The most adverse side effect of atorvastatin can lead to kidney failure by affecting muscle and liver.
Do you gain or lose weight on levothyroxine?
Levothyroxine may cause weight loss, mainly it is just the water weight.
What should you avoid while taking simvastatin?
Drinking large amounts of grapefruit juice can cause unwanted effects on the liver. It also can result in a risk of muscle injury and kidney problems.