November 17, 2020
The vast majority of medicines you take probably aren’t prescribed by a doctor. These drugs, commonly known as over-the-counter (OTC) medications, are the ones available at your local pharmacy. They can treat a variety of symptoms, ranging from pain, to allergies, to heartburn, to cold and flu.
The medicine aisle provides countless choices for OTC medications, offering fast relief any time you’re feeling an ailment. However, because they’re not prescribed by a doctor, there are risks associated with taking them. So, next time you’re trying to decide between ibuprofen or aspirin, here are four areas of safety you should pay attention to:
The number one thing to be careful of with OTC medications are the potential side effects. Every drug has them; make sure to read the label and the manufacturer’s website so you know what symptoms to look out for and understand what reactions warrant more attention. Not all side effects are bad; for example, the drowsiness caused by many cold-and-flu medications helps you get through the night when you’re suffering from congestion. Be sure to also pay attention to the expiration date or other storage instructions — ignoring them could lead to more serious side effects.
If you’re taking more than one OTC medication, there are three possible ways they could interact in unsafe ways. In the case of multiple medications with the same active ingredients, such as multiple brands of acetaminophen, you could receive too high a dose. This interaction is called duplication, and its reverse, opposition, is just as dangerous: this is when you take multiple medicines with opposite effects. They can cancel themselves out, or cause alteration, which is when medicines have different effects but change the way your body responds to another medicine.
All of these interactions can cause increased side effects, reduce the efficacy of the medication, or cause lasting damage to your body.
Most OTC medications are taken orally and end up being absorbed by your body in the stomach. As a result, certain foods (or lack thereof) can change how your body interacts with the medicine. Make sure to read the label: some medicines aren’t to be taken on an empty stomach, while others require being taken with food. In general, if there are no warnings on the label related to food interactions, you may be able to take the medicine either way. If you're unsure, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
While they’re rare, any time you take a new OTC medication, you should be aware of potential allergic reactions. OTC allergic reactions have recognizable symptoms like hives, rashes, and itching. If you worry that you’re having an allergic reaction, seek medical help immediately.
The most important thing you can go when it comes to taking OTC medications is to be informed. Because you don’t have a doctor looking out for the safety issues above, it is on you to read labels and websites thoroughly and also be aware of any symptoms that could warrant additional care.
Remember: even if your healthcare provider isn’t prescribing or recommending your OTC medications, they are still there to help and answer questions if you have any concerns.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.