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Pain Management Health Center

Over-the-Counter Medicines: What's Right for You?

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OTC Know-How: It's on the Label

You wouldn't ignore your doctor's instructions for using a prescription drug; so don't ignore the label when taking an OTC medicine. Here's what to look for:

  • Product name
  • "Active ingredients": therapeutic substances in medicine
  • "Purpose": product category (such as antihistamine, antacid, or cough suppressant)
  • "Uses": symptoms or diseases the product will treat or prevent
  • "Warnings": when not to use the product, when to stop taking it, when to see a doctor, and possible side effects
  • "Directions": how much to take, how to take it, and how long to take it
  • "Other information": such as storage information
  • "Inactive ingredients": substances such as binders, colors, or flavoring

You can help yourself read the label too. Always use enough light. It usually takes three times more light to read the same line at age 60 than at age 30. If necessary, use your glasses or contact lenses when reading labels.

Always remember to look for the statement describing the tamper-evident feature(s) before you buy the product and when you use it.

When it comes to medicines, more does not necessarily mean better. You should never misuse OTC medicines by taking them longer or in higher doses than the label recommends. Symptoms that persist are a clear signal it's time to see a doctor.

Be sure to read the label each time you purchase a product. Just because two or more products are from the same brand family doesn't mean they are meant to treat the same conditions or contain the same ingredients.

Remember, if you read the label and still have questions, talk to a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.  

Drug Interactions: A Word to the Wise

Although mild and relatively uncommon, interactions involving OTC drugs can produce unwanted results or make medicines less effective. It's especially important to know about drug interactions if you're taking Rx and OTC drugs at the same time.

Some drugs can also interact with foods and beverages, as well as with health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.

Here are a few drug interaction cautions for some common OTC ingredients:

  • Avoid alcohol if you are taking antihistamines, cough-cold products with the ingredient dextromethorphan, or drugs that treat sleeplessness.
  • Do not use drugs that treat sleeplessness if you are taking prescription sedatives or tranquilizers.
  • Check with your doctor before taking products containing aspirin if you're taking a prescription blood thinner or if you have diabetes or gout.
  • Do not use laxatives when you have stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting.
  • Unless directed by a doctor, do not use a nasal decongestant if you are taking a prescription drug for high blood pressure or depression, or if you have heart or thyroid disease, diabetes, or prostate problems.

This is not a complete list. Read the label! Drug labels change as new information becomes available. That's why it's important to read the label each time you take medicine.  

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