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Savvy Shopping Tips for OTC Medicines

What you need to know before going to the drugstore.
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WebMD Feature

Overuse of acetaminophen, a common over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller, can result in liver failure and even death. Because of this, the FDA is considering recommendations to place new restrictions on the drug. But this is only the latest in a long string of stories that call the safety of various OTC pain relievers, allergy medicines, and other drugs into question.

How can you be sure that what you are taking is safe or even effective? What’s more, how can you know for sure if the generic you buy is the same medicine as the brand-name drug? And how do all those formerly prescription drugs that are now available without a prescription fit in? With all these concerns and choices, a trip to the local drugstore can be overwhelming.

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“The key,” says Norman Tomaka, a certified consultant pharmacist, in Melbourne, Fla., “is to know what you want and need before you go into the store.” Tomaka is also a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association. “When you’re walking along the medicine aisle is no time to window shop or impulse buy.”

WebMD has assembled a list of shopping tips you can use to make smart, safe choices when you buy over-the-counter medicines.

Tip 1: Read the Medicine's Label -- Carefully

“Reading the label on an over-the-counter drug is the single most important thing,” says Tomaka. The FDA mandates that each OTC drug label must clearly list the active ingredient and the amount of the active ingredient. Labels also need to state what the medicine’s intended use is. “Educate yourself,” Tomaka says, “even if you can’t pronounce the active ingredient’s name. Look at the drug ingredient and look at the indications to find out what it is used for.”

The information on the label can also help you decide between a generic and a brand-name OTC drug product. If you are considering saving money by buying a generic drug, Tomaka says, compare the active ingredient and amounts in the generic vs. the brand name OTC product. “For example, if you are purchasing an antihistamine, read the ingredient and amount. If the store brand or generic brand is identical to the trade brand, it will likely have the same effects on your symptoms.”

If you have known allergies, you should read the inactive ingredients in any over-the-counter drug. “Inactive ingredients,” Tomaka says, “must also be prominently labeled. If you don’t have any allergies to the inactive ingredients, it is likely safe to choose the drug.”

Step 2: Steer Clear of Combination Over-the-Counter Medicines

William J. Calhoun, MD, says you should avoid the use of products that have a combination of ingredients. Calhoun is a professor of medicine and vice chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He says, "Pick the ingredient for the symptom you are trying to mitigate. If you have fever, Tylenol, ibuprofen, or aspirin are pretty good fever reducers. If you have a cough, dextromorphan is a good suppressant, and if you have a runny nose, antihistamines are helpful.”

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