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How to Take Over the Counter Medicines Safely

May 03, 2018

Over the counter (OTC) medicines do not require a prescription, but they still should be taken with care. If you have a cold, flu, allergy, headache, skin irritation or upset stomach, you can walk into your local grocery or pharmacy and pick from a variety of medicines available on the shelves. But that variety of choice is all the more reason to select your medicine with care.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves and regulates the medicines, their ingredients and labeling, but you as a consumer still should evaluate if a particular medicine is right for you.

What to Know about Over the Counter Medicines

Before you buy an OTC medicine, read the label to determine if it produces side effects that you need to avoid. If you have hypertension or a thyroid condition, for example, you may need to avoid certain decongestants. If you have a bleeding disorder, you will want to avoid aspirin unless otherwise directed by your doctor.

Do not take more than the recommended dosage. If you’re not seeing relief after taking the recommended dosage, talk with your doctor to see if a prescription or other option would be helpful.

Check the OTC label to make sure the medicine does not adversely interact with other medicines you’re taking — prescription or otherwise. Consult the pharmacist or your physician if you have any doubts.

Also, be sure that you’re not taking multiple forms of the same medicine. A Cleveland, Ohio, woman found this out the hard way. In January of 2018, she was battling the flu and took Tylenol during the day, NyQuil at night and Theraflu in the morning for several days. She didn’t realize all of the medicines contained acetaminophen and, because she ingested too much, she went into liver failure. Fortunately, after a liver transplant, she has recovered, but this demonstrates that although OTC medicines are accessed easily, they still are pharmaceutical drugs. 

Beware of Common Side Effects of OTCs

OTCs will list common side effects such as nausea, sleepiness, etc. Again, evaluate your situation to determine if a potential side effect will be tolerable. If a medicine may make you drowsy and you have an exam, long drive or need to operate heavy machinery, you should consider another option. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend other OTC medicines and perhaps natural remedies as well.

If you’re taking an OTC medicine and develop new or unusual symptoms, talk with your doctor to ensure you’re not experiencing a serious side effect. Side effects from taking too much of a medicine can vary. Too much aspirin can lead to bleeding conditions that appear in the gums or stool. Taking too much of a decongestant can lead to a fast heart rate or increase in blood pressure.

OTC medicines are designed to help you feel better. By using them as intended and respecting their dangers, you can use them to your benefit.

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