7.5 Medication Categories

Major Categories for Medications

Medications are placed in different categories depending on the reason they would be taken. Viewing medications according to different classes, or categories, makes it easier to understand why someone would take a certain medication. For the most part, all medications can be placed into one of the categories below, and some medications fall into more than one category. For example, Tylenol is both an analgesic and an antipyretic.

1. Analgesics

An analgesic is used to relieve pain.

Three Types of Analgesics:

  • Mild: This type of analgesic includes those that can be purchased over the counter. Mild analgesics are drugs such as Tylenol and can be used to relieve mild pain, such as a headache.
  • Narcotic: Narcotics are used for moderate to severe pain and must be prescribed by a physician. Their use is also strictly controlled because of the potential for abuse or addiction. Patients taking narcotics often experience side effects such as sedation or constipation. Medications such as codeine and morphine would be included in this category of analgesic.
  • Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): This type of analgesic is used to decrease inflammation. Some medications in this category, such as ibuprofen, which is ideal for muscle pain and cramping, can be purchased over the counter, whereas others, such as naproxen, require a prescription.

2) Anesthetics

An anesthetic is a medication used to reduce or eliminate sensation.

Types of Anesthetics:

  • A general anesthetic is administered to a patient when they are undergoing a surgical procedure. The purpose is to completely eliminate sensation for the duration of the procedure.
  • An epidural or spinal anesthetic is given to a patient to reduce sensation to a large area without depressing the central nervous system. This type of anesthetic is often used for geriatric patients when undergoing surgery, especially if they have cardiovascular or other health issues. This form of anesthetic is preferred in such cases to decrease possible adverse effects. It is also is a way of reducing pain and sensation during childbirth without potentially causing harm to the unborn child.
  • A local anesthetic is administered when an isolated part of the body needs treatment. This type of anesthetic is often used for sutures (stitches) or during dental procedures. In most cases, the medication is injected into the surrounding area to decrease or remove sensation in that area.
  • A topical anesthetic is used for a “numbing” effect. Often it is in the form of a cream or ointment that is applied to an area of the skin or in the mouth for certain dental procedures. Topical anesthetics can also be used for pediatric patients to numb the skin before a local anesthetic is injected.
Key Concept

It is important not to confuse analgesics with anesthetics. Analgesics are used for pain relief, whereas anesthetics remove sensation.

3) Antibiotics, Antifungals, Antituberculars, and Antivirals

     a) Antibiotics

Antibiotics are usually prescribed for the treatment of bacterial disorders such as conjunctivitis, pneumonia, meningitis, and septicemia. The first antibiotic was penicillin, which was introduced in 1941, and since then, antibiotics have grown to be one of the most commonly prescribed medications (Turley, 2016). Today, there are many different classes of antibiotics that have been developed. Some of these antibiotics are called broad spectrum because they are used to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections. Other antibiotics are used in the treatment of very specific organisms and are not effective against others.

Antibiotics can either by bactericidal or bacteriostatic. Penicillin and cephalosporin are bactericidal, which means they destroy bacteria by preventing them from making normal cell walls. Most other antibiotics are bacteriostatic, which means they act inside the bacteria by interfering with the chemical activities essential to their life cycle. In essence, this type of antibiotic works by stopping bacteria from multiplying rather than killing them like bactericidal antibiotics do; this gives the body’s immune system a chance to fight the remaining bacteria.

Some Types of Antibiotics: 

  • Penicillin
  • Sulfonamides
  • Cephalosporin
  • Erythromycins
  • Quinolones
  • Tetracycline

Antibiotic Resistance  

The widespread use of antibiotics over the years has led to antibiotic resistance; that is, bacteria that would have normally been killed or halted by the action of an antibiotic have developed a resistance to the medication. Examples of this include methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE). As a result, pharmaceutical companies are developing more antibiotics that are specific to certain bacteria. Physicians also try to prescribe the antibiotic that is most likely to eliminate the bacteria present in a patient’s body. A culture and sensitivity (C&S) test can be done to determine which form of bacteria is present in a wound or infection. This involves taking a swab of the area and sending it to the lab to be tested to see which bacteria is present and determine which antibiotic would be best to treat the underlying infection.

The following links are an AHS campaign, Do Bugs Need Drugs:

Do Bugs Need Drugs  

Guide to Wise Use of Antibiotics

(Alberta Health Services, 2022; Alberta Health Services 2022a)

     b) Antifungals

An antifungal is a substance that kills fungi or inhibits their growth. For example, athlete’s foot is a fungal infection of the foot. It is very common worldwide and occurs between the toes and on the soles of the feet.

     c) Antituberculars

An antitubercular is any agent or group of medications used to treat tuberculosis.


Key Concept

In order to treat tuberculosis effectively, a patient is required to take two or more medications in combination.

     d) Antivirals

An antiviral is any medication that is destructive to viruses. Examples of this include Tamiflu, which is used to treat influenza, and the various medication combinations that are used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

4) Antiemetics

Antiemetics are very common medications and are used to relieve nausea and vomiting. Some examples include Gravol, which is available over the counter, and Maxeran, which requires a prescription.

5) Antipyretics

Antipyretics are medications used to reduce fever. Many of the medications in this category can also be found in other categories; for example, Tylenol and Advil, which are also analgesics.

6) Antitussives

Antitussives are medications used to reduce coughs. Many of these are available over the counter and include medications such as Benadryl and Buckley’s.

7) Anticoagulants

Anticoagulants are medications that prevent or delay blood clotting. These medications can help patients who have a history of blood clots or are likely to develop them. A history of heart issues and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) would possibly indicate the need for anticoagulant medications.


Key Concept

Blood clotting: The conversion of blood from a free‐flowing liquid to a semi‐solid gel

Thrombophlebitis: Inflammation of a vein, often accompanied by a clot; can occur following surgery, immobilization, prolonged sitting (as in an airplane), prolonged standing, or trauma to a vessel wall

8) Anticonvulsants

Anticonvulsants are any medication that prevents or reduces the severity of epileptic or other convulsive seizures. Often an electroencephalogram (EEG) is required to determine the type of seizures and which medication would be the best course of treatment.

9) Psychiatric Medications

a) Antidepressants: An antidepressant is any medication that prevents or relieves depression. Clinical depression is a mood disturbance characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement. There are many kinds of depression, and the condition can range from mild, transient symptoms to severe, prolonged symptoms.

b) Tranquilizers: A tranquilizer is any medication used to calm someone who is anxious or agitated and does so without decreasing their consciousness. An anxiety attack, an acute reaction involving intense anxiety and panic, is one of the disorders that is treated with tranquilizers. These attacks can occur very suddenly and can be brief or last up to an hour or longer.

c) Antipsychotics: Antipsychotic medications are used to treat various pathologies such as drug-induced psychosis, schizophrenia, extreme mania, and depression that is resistant to other medications. Because some patients experience differing levels of side effects and sometimes adverse effects, the administration of these medications is strictly monitored.

11) Antihistamines

An antihistamine is a medication used to treat allergies and allergy-related symptoms. Histamine is a naturally occurring substance in the body; however, when someone has allergies, their histamine levels increase dramatically and cause physiological symptoms such as runny nose, red, itchy eyes, and sneezing. Many antihistamines are available as non‐prescription medications, but a few require a prescription. Examples of antihistamine medications are Reactine, Aerius, and Claritin.

12) Cardiovascular Drugs

Cardiovascular drugs are medications that act on the heart and blood vessels to treat various conditions. These medications can be given to patients who have hypertension, angina, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, and high cholesterol levels. Diuretics are included in this category and are used to decrease edema, or fluid build-up, by increasing urination. They are often referred to as “water pills.”


Key Concept

Hypertension is a common and often asymptomatic disorder that is characterized by elevated blood pressure that persistently exceeds 140/90 mmHg. Recent research indicates that it is best practice to treat patients for hypertension once their blood pressure persistently exceeds 130/90 mmHg. Early intervention at that level includes lifestyle and dietary changes before the introduction of medication. Hypertension is commonly referred to as the “silent killer” because many patients experience no obvious symptoms. Antihypertensives are medications given to treat high blood pressure.

13) Endocrine Drugs

Medications in this category are all hormones that act in the same manner as naturally occurring hormones and involve treating disorders of the endocrine glands. Endocrine drugs are either created synthetically (in a lab) or naturally with animal hormones. They act on various parts of the endocrine system and are used to either increase or decrease levels of hormones depending on the needs of the patient.

a) Antidiabetic Drugs

Any medication used to treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes is considered an antidiabetic drug. These medications are included in the endocrine drug category because diabetes is a considered an endocrine condition.

Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a complex disorder of carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism that is primarily the result of a partial or complete lack of insulin secretion by the beta cells of the pancreas or of defects in the insulin receptors (Diabetes Canada, 2022). 

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system kills the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Type 1 typically develops in childhood or adolescence, but it can also occur in adulthood. Type 1 is always treated with insulin (Diabetes Canada, 2022).
  • Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body cannot use the insulin that is released or cannot make enough insulin. Ninety percent of people afflicted with diabetes have this type. Type 2 is more common in adults, but it can affect children as well. Type 2 diabetes is managed through meal planning and physical activity, but may also require oral medications to control blood sugar more effectively (Diabetes Canada, 2022).

14) Gastrointestinal Drugs

Gastrointestinal drugs are medications that provide relief of gastrointestinal disorders and symptoms. They are commonly used to treat conditions such as indigestion, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, and ulcers. Many of these medications are available over the counter and include antacids such as Pepcid‐AC which neutralize the acidic secretion of gastric juices.

15) Respiratory Drugs

Medications in this category are used in the treatment of respiratory disorders such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and emphysema. Any medication that works on the respiratory system is included in this category. Respiratory drugs often come in the form of inhalers, but in some cases, they are in oral or other forms.

16) Sedatives/Hypnotics

Sedatives/hypnotics are medications that depress the central nervous system to promote drowsiness and sleep. It is important to differentiate sedatives/hypnotics from tranquilizers. The purpose of sedatives/hypnotics is to promote drowsiness, whereas tranquilizers are used to calm someone who is anxious or agitated and should not increase drowsiness.

Key Concept

Sleep is essential to the functioning of the body and is the time for rest and regeneration. Studies show that people require at least eight hours of sleep per night in order to be fully functional. Many factors affect our patterns of sleep, including age, physical illness, psychological stress, anxiety, and the effects of medications. It is normal for sleep patterns to change throughout our lifetime, with more sleep required in a 24-hour period when we are young and less as we age.

17) Stimulants

A stimulant is any medication that increases the activity of a body system. Caffeine is one of the most common central nervous system stimulants and is sometimes prescribed to counteract migraines, drowsiness, or mental fatigue. Other stimulants include medications for the treatment of attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Review Exercise



Unless otherwise indicated, material on this page has been adapted from the following resource:

Ernstmeyer, K., & Christman, E. (Eds.). (2020). Nursing pharmacology. Chippewa Valley Technical College. https://wtcs.pressbooks.pub/pharmacology/ licensed under  CC BY 4.0





Alberta Health Services. (2022). Do bugs need drugs? A community program for wise use of antibiotics. https://dobugsneeddrugs.org/

Alberta Health Services. (2022a). Do bugs need drugs? Guide to wise use of antibiotics. https://dobugsneeddrugs.org/guide-to-wise-use-of-antibiotics/

Diabetes Canada. (2022). What is diabetes? https://diabetes.ca/about-diabetes/what-is-diabetes

Turley, S. M. (2016). Understanding pharmacology for health professionals (5th ed.). Pearson Education.



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The Language of Medical Terminology Copyright © 2022 by Lisa Sturdy and Susanne Erickson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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