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Savvy Shopping Tips for OTC Medicines

What you need to know before going to the drugstore.

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

But if you don’t know what medication will best treat your symptoms, he says, you should ask. “Ask the pharmacist to recommend a single agent product that takes care of the symptoms that you have.” The problem with combination products is that they can increase the risk of an accidental overdose. A combination cold medicine may have acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). So taking it along with Tylenol can get you into trouble.

Tomaka also advises that you should keep it simple. “If you need something for sore throat,” he says, “but don’t have a headache or fever or cough, don‘t buy something that treats these problems. If you just have plain diarrhea without gas, you don’t want the product for gas and diarrhea.”

Tip 3: Read and Heed the Warnings on OTC Drug Labels

OTC drug buyer beware if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or certain other underlying health conditions. Ingredients in some OTC products may interfere with your disease or medications used to treat it. For example, some decongestants may raise blood pressure levels. “Read the label,” says Megan Berman, MD, “to see if there are any warnings that may pertain to your underlying disease status or current medication regimen.” Berman is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “If you have questions or concerns,” she says, “the pharmacist is an excellent resource.”

Tip 4: Ask the Pharmacist for Help

When in doubt or if an over-the-counter medication looks different to you, ask your pharmacist for clarification. Tomaka tells WebMD that trade names can change and multiple drugs with different indications can have the same trade name. For example, there have been several mix-ups between two common OTC drugs that use the brand name Dulcolax. One has bisacodyl, a laxative, as its main ingredient. The other contains docusate sodium, a stool softener. “Some people have taken the wrong one before a colonoscopy as part of their preparation. As a result, their bowel wasn’t prepared for the procedure,” Tomaka says.

Tip 5: Know When -- and When Not -- to Self Diagnose

Self-diagnosis can be OK in the right circumstances, Tomaka says. “You can trust yourself if you know your symptoms or have had similar problems in the past and self-diagnosed and treated them successfully.” For instance, Tomaka says that if you have some vaginal itching and discharge and it was a warm summer day and you were wearing pantyhose, you can trust your own judgment and treat it with an OTC anti-yeast product. “There are also clues on product labeling,” he says, “that can help tell you if this product will treat your symptoms.”

However, you should see a doctor if you experience repeated episodes of similar symptoms that are not responding to the store-bought therapy. And it’s important to discuss any new symptoms with your doctor before trying to treat them on your own.

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