Over-the-counter medications are drugs you can buy without a prescription to treat common problems. However, you should still use them with caution. A number of recent studies have revealed worrisome side effects from incorrect use of OTC medicines. Here are six things you should know about over-the-counter medications (OTC) to keep you and your loved ones safe.
To minimize the risk of harmful drug interactions, always keep a list of all the drugs you are taking in your wallet (both prescription drugs and OTC drugs) and share the list with your doctors and the people you most trust. If you are getting headaches, diarrhea, constipation, or have a dry mouth, it might be a minor side effect of the drugs you’re taking; some side effects can be life-threatening, including severe bleeding or liver or kidney damage.
- Just because medicines are OTC does not make them risk-free. Do not assume that because you do not need a prescription for OTC medications that they are always safe to use. Depending upon the other medications you are already taking and your health condition, OTC drugs may be dangerous and can be toxic if overused. While it is generally okay to take the correct dose of an OTC drug for a specific problem (for example, taking ibuprofen to help relieve a headache), all medications carry different risks and benefits. If you have a complex health condition or simply have concerns about an OTC medication, check with your doctor before taking it. People with very bad symptoms, who do not know what is wrong with them, or with long-term medical problems also should check with their doctor before taking an OTC medication.
- Our knowledge about the risks and benefits of different OTC drugs is continuously changing. As with other areas of medicine, researchers are constantly learning new things about OTC drugs that change the way they should be used. For example, after receiving numerous reports of severe liver damage associated with the use of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), in 2011 the FDA changed the maximum amount of acetaminophen that could be contained in single OTC dosage to 325 mg. And the risks may differ depending upon your age, weight and medical condition.
- OTC drugs may interact with other medications you are taking. Just as two or more prescription medications can interact with one another, creating adverse or unintended side effects, OTC drugs can also change the way a prescribed medication works in your body. If you are taking prescription medications, including opioids, check with your doctor before combining them with an OTC medicine.
- OTC drugs may interact with diet or lifestyle factors. OTC medications can be harmful if they interact with alcohol in your system or certain foods in your diet. They can also affect other health conditions. Check with your doctor if you have specific medical or lifestyle considerations that may need to be taken into account when starting an OTC medication. As a general rule, you should not consume alcohol when taking any type of medication, unless your doctor gives you permission to do so.
- OTC drugs may affect older people differently. While everyone should be careful when taking medications, older people need to take extra caution. The body changes how it absorbs food and drugs as it ages; and, older people generally take more medications than younger people, putting them at higher risk for adverse interactions.
- Your doctor may decide to provide you with different treatments based on the OTC medications you take. Always report your OTC medications to your doctor, whether at check-ups or during hospital visits. Always let healthcare providers know about any medications you are currently taking, including OTC medicines.
Many people take vitamin and herbal supplements to feel better. As a general rule, eating a healthy diet of foods with different vitamins is the best way to make sure you have the vitamins you need. Like over-the-counter drugs, vitamin supplements are not risk-free. Watch John Oliver explain the issues with vitamin supplements. You can learn more from about vitamin supplements on this site from Dr. Salomeh Keyhani, including vitamin C supplements, vitamin E supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, and vitamin B12 supplements.
Dr. Keyhani’s evidence comes largely from Cochrane.org, which is an independent group that analyzes a range of studies and summarizes the best evidence from research. Also keep in mind that vitamin supplements you buy at the drugstore or other retail stores are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and so they may not be what they appear to be, as the New York Attorney General’s office found.
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