Oral medications

Photo of a woman taking a tablet
PantherMedia / Antje Bakker

Many different medications are taken orally (by mouth). They come as solid tablets, capsules, chewable tablets or orally disintegrating tablets to be swallowed whole or sucked – or as a liquid in the form of drops, syrups or solutions.

In most cases, the ingredients in oral medication don't enter the bloodstream until they reach the stomach or bowel. Sometimes the drug is absorbed by the lining of the mouth, as is the case with lozenges and orally disintegrating tablets. Some drugs – for example, certain laxatives or contrast agents – aren't meant to enter the bloodstream in large quantities at all.

Tablets

Tablets are available in many different shapes and sizes. They are simple to manufacture and can keep for a long time. One or more active ingredients are combined with excipients (carrier substances that help hold the tablet together) and then pressed into a tablet shape.

  • Uncoated tablets: They are made up of tightly compressed powder or granules and usually have a dull surface. It is important to take these tablets with water to avoid them getting stuck in your food pipe, and so that there is enough liquid in your stomach to allow the tablet to dissolve.
  • Coated tablets (sugar-coated or film-coated tablets): These tablets are covered with a layer to protect them against things like dampness or bacteria. Coated tablets are smooth and often shiny. They are easier to swallow and have a neutral or slightly sweet taste. Depending on what the coating is made of and how thick it is, people differentiate between sugar-coated and film-coated tablets. Sugar-coated tablets are usually round or oval in shape; film-coated tablets only have a thin coating. If tablets contain drugs that have to be protected from the acid in the stomach, they are coated with a protective layer that is resistant to gastric acid (gastro-resistant tablets). Then the drugs aren't released until they reach the small intestine. Coated tablets should not be crushed or chewed because then they will no longer have the protective coating.
  • Fizzy tablets: Fizzy (effervescent) tablets are dissolved in a glass of water for drinking. They are well suited for people who have difficulty swallowing, and can have a faster effect than tablets that are swallowed whole because the medication has already dissolved by the time it arrives in the stomach.
  • Chewable tablets and lozenges: These contain drugs that are meant to have an effect in the throat (for example, when treating a sore throat) or that can be absorbed across the lining of the mouth.
  • Orally disintegrating tablets: These tablets are placed into a cheek pouch or under the tongue to let them slowly dissolve. They are also known as buccal tablets (from the Latin "bucca" meaning "cheek”) and sublingual tablets (from the Latin "sub" meaning "under" and "lingua" meaning "tongue"). The drug is absorbed into the bloodstream directly through the lining of the mouth and then travels around the rest of the body.

Capsules and chewable capsules

Capsules have a shell that is typically made of gelatin. It contains the medicine in the form of a powder, granules or a liquid. The shell dissolves in the stomach or bowel, and then releases the drug. Capsules are long-lasting and tasteless. Even sensitive drugs keep well in capsules. There are also chewable capsules that you bite so the drug can be absorbed through the lining of your mouth.

Time-release tablets and capsules

Time-release tablets and capsules are designed to release their active ingredients slowly. A time-release tablet may contain an entire day’s worth of the drugs, and then release them evenly over 12 or 24 hours, for example. This has the advantage of only needing one tablet per day, and not more.

Powders, drops and oral liquid medications

Powders and granules

Some medications are available in the form of a powder or granules. These include some painkillers and many for young children (dry syrup). The powders and granules are usually dissolved in water to be swallowed.

Drops

In drops, either the liquid itself is the drug, or the drug has been dissolved in liquid – usually in water or a mixture of water and alcohol. The doses are given in numbers of drops.

Liquid medications and syrups

In liquid medications, one or more drugs are usually dissolved in water, or the liquid itself is the drug. These medications usually come with a measuring cup to help you get the dose right. People who have problems swallowing tablets often use liquid medications instead. Concentrated sugar solutions that contain medication are called syrups.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on August 24, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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