When it comes to oral medication, both tablets and capsules are popular options. They both work by delivering a drug or supplement via your digestive tract for a specific purpose.
Although tablets and capsules work in a similar way, they have some key differences, too. And, in some cases, one form may be better suited for you than the other.
Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each, how they differ, and tips for taking them safely.
Tablets are the most common type of pill. They’re an inexpensive, safe, and effective way to deliver oral medication.
These units of medication are made by compressing one or more powdered ingredients to form a hard, solid, smooth-coated pill that breaks down in the digestive tract.
In addition to active ingredients, most tablets contain additives that hold the pill together and improve the taste, texture, or appearance.
Tablets can be round, oblong, or disc-shaped. Oblong tablets are known as caplets, which can be easier to swallow. Some have a line scored across the middle, making them easier to split in half.
Some tablets have a special coating that prevents them from breaking down in the stomach. This coating helps ensure that the tablet will only dissolve after entering the small intestine.
Other tablets come in chewable forms, or as orally dissolving tablets (ODT), which break down on their own in saliva. These types of tablets can be especially helpful for people who have trouble swallowing.
In every case, the dissolved tablet medication is eventually absorbed into your bloodstream. The dissolved medication travels to your liver and is then distributed to one or more target areas in your body so that it can do its job.
Throughout this process, the drug undergoes chemical changes, known as metabolism. It’s eventually excreted in your urine or feces.
Capsules include medication that’s enclosed in an outer shell. This outer shell is broken down in the digestive tract and the medication is absorbed into the bloodstream and then distributed and metabolized in much the same way as medication from a tablet.
There are two main types of capsules: hard shelled and soft gel.
The outside of a hard-shelled capsule consists of two halves. One half fits inside the other to form a closed casing. The inside is filled with dry medication in powder or pellet form.
Other hard-shelled capsules contain medication in liquid form. These are known as liquid-filled hard capsules (LFHC).
Airtight LFHCs make it possible for a single pill to contain more than one drug. Hence, they’re ideal for dual-action or extended-release formulas.
Soft-gel capsules have a slightly different appearance than hard-shelled capsules. They’re typically wider and are usually semi-transparent as opposed to opaque.
Also known as liquid gels, they contain medication suspended in gelatin or a similar substance. This substance is easily digested, at which point active ingredients are released and absorbed.
- Inexpensive. Although it depends on the active ingredient and the casing, tablets are generally cheaper to manufacture than capsules. This often makes them more affordable for consumers.
- Durable and long-lasting. Tablets are more stable and typically have a longer shelf life than capsules.
- Higher dosages. A single tablet can accommodate a higher dose of an active ingredient than a single capsule.
- Can be split. Unlike capsules, tablets can be cut in two for a smaller dose, if needed.
- Chewable. Some tablets are available in chewable or even orally-dissolving tablet forms.
- Variable delivery. Tablets can come in quick release, delayed release, or extended release formats.
- More likely to cause irritation. Tablets are more likely to irritate the gastrointestinal tract.
- Slower acting. Once in the body, tablets are absorbed more slowly than capsules. They may take longer to work.
- Uneven disintegration. Tablets are more likely to break down inconsistently, which can decrease the medication’s effectiveness and overall absorption.
- Less palatable. While many tablets have a flavored coating to mask the taste of the medication, some do not. Once swallowed, they can leave a bad aftertaste.
- Fast acting. Capsules tend to break down more quickly than tablets. They may offer faster relief from symptoms than tablets.
- Tasteless. Capsules are less likely to have an unpleasant taste or odor.
- Tamper-resistant. They’re often made so that it’s not as easy to split them in half or crush like tablets. As a result, capsules may be more likely to be taken as intended.
- Higher drug absorption. Capsules have higher bioavailability, which means that more of the drug is likely to enter your bloodstream. This could make capsule formats slightly more effective than tablets.
- Less durable. Capsules tend to be less stable than tablets. They may react to environmental conditions, particularly humidity.
- Shorter shelf life. Capsules expire more quickly than tablets.
- More expensive. Capsules that contain liquids are generally more expensive to manufacture than tablets and may cost more as a result.
- May contain animal products. Many capsules contain gelatin sourced from pigs, cows, or fish. This may make them unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans.
- Lower doses. Capsules cannot accommodate as much medication as tablets. You might need to take more to get the same dose as you would in a tablet.
There are risks associated with crushing tablets or opening capsules to drain the liquid.
When you do this, you alter the way the drug is absorbed in your body. Although rare, it can result in not getting enough of the medication or, in contrast, getting too much.
Tablets that have a special coating to prevent disintegration in the stomach might be absorbed in the stomach if they’re crushed. This can lead to under-dosing and possibly other complications.
Overdosing is more likely with extended-release pills. When you tamper with the pill, the active ingredient may be released all at once as opposed to gradually.
Many people find swallowing pills — especially large ones — uncomfortable.
Both tablets and capsules present swallowing challenges. Tablets are stiff and hard, and some shapes may be more difficult to swallow. Some capsules, particularly soft gels, can be large.
However, there are some strategies that may make it easier to swallow a tablet or capsule.
Here are some techniques to try:
- Take a big swig of water before putting the tablet or capsule in your mouth and visualize swallowing it. Then do it again with the pill in your mouth.
- Drink from a bottle with a narrow opening when taking the pill.
- Lean forward slightly when you swallow.
- Add the pill to semi-liquid food, such as applesauce or pudding.
- Use a special straw or cup designed to help with pill swallowing.
- Coat the pill with an edible spray-on or gel lubricant.
Both tablets and capsules present minor risks.
Tablets tend to contain more ingredients than capsules, potentially increasing the likelihood of a sensitivity or an allergy.
Most capsules also contain additives. Hard-shelled capsules contain fewer extra ingredients, while soft gels tend to have a higher number of synthetic ingredients.
Tablets and capsules are two common types of oral medication. Although they have a similar purpose, they also have some key differences.
Tablets have a longer shelf life and come in a variety of forms. They can also accommodate a higher dose of an active ingredient than a capsule. They tend to be slower acting and, in some cases, may disintegrate unevenly in your body.
Capsules act quickly and most, if not all, of the drug is absorbed. However, they may cost more and expire more quickly.
If you have allergies to certain pill additives, need a vegan option, or have a hard time swallowing pills, be sure to tell your doctor. They can work with you to find the best type of tablet or capsule for your needs.