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Pain Management Health Center

Savvy Shopping Tips for OTC Medicines

What you need to know before going to the drugstore.
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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.”

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.

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