Are There Health Hazards in Your Medicine Cabinet?
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on April 23, 2020
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These can be good for putting on makeup, doing your nails, or any number of odd jobs around the house. But never stick them -- or anything else, for that matter -- into your ear canal. Earwax is a healthy part of your body’s natural defenses, not a sign of illness. If your ear hurts or is itchy, or you feel like there’s something in there, talk to your doctor.
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If members of your family share one medicine cabinet, be careful with this pain reliever. Though it’s safe for most adults, older people who take blood thinners for a heart condition should be careful with aspirin. Taking both can lead to bleeding in the stomach or intestines. And never give it to kids under 2 or older children or teens who are getting over an illness with flu-like symptoms. In those cases, aspirin is linked to a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome, which can cause swelling in your liver or brain.
Other Pain Relievers
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Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can help with pain and swelling. But they also can thin your blood. If you take prescription blood thinners, they can cause serious bleeding. If you take them too often, NSAIDs may make you more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. They also can be bad for your kidneys, especially if you already have kidney problems.
Leftover Prescription Medicine
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If your doctor gives you medication for a specific condition, use it as directed, then get rid of it. The best way to do that is to crush it and mix it with something no one would want to eat, like coffee grounds or kitty litter, then put it in a sealed plastic bag and throw it in the trash. If you take sleep medicine or strong painkillers too long, you can start to depend on some of them. And if you use antibiotics for the wrong reasons, that can lead to bacterial infections that are harder to treat.
Medicines for Heartburn
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Proton pump inhibitors (like Nexium, Prilosec, and Prevacid) can ease the pain caused by acid reflux and other conditions related to stomach acid. But using them for a long time can make you more likely to have gut infections or make it harder for your body to take in nutrients. If you have heartburn a lot, talk with your doctor about all your options.
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They help get rid of extra acid in your stomach that leads to pain or indigestion. But for some people, they can cause constipation, cramps, and diarrhea. A certain kind called acid blockers (like Pepcid AC or Tagamet) may also cause headaches and dizziness and more serious side effects like confusion, chest tightness, sore throat, fever, unusual heartbeat, and weakness in some people. Call your doctor if you notice any of these signs.
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These can help with sneezing, runny nose, coughing, and itchiness. But they also can make you drowsy, lightheaded, confused, or nervous. They can affect your sleep, appetite, and sex and cause vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea. Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these when you take antihistamines.
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Be careful not to swallow it. That can hurt your stomach or make you nauseous. You may even vomit if you swallow too much. Kids under 6 shouldn’t use it because they’re more likely to swallow some by mistake.
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Also called “antimicrobial” or “antiseptic,” these have chemicals that are supposed to kill bacteria. But they may instead help make the bacteria stronger and harder for antibiotics to kill. And they don’t seem to do a better job of keeping you healthy than plain soap.
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Companies that make these don’t have to prove they’re safe. Even if they are and you’re perfectly healthy, too much of some vitamins -- including A, D, E, and K -- can cause problems. Some can also affect medication you take, so talk to your doctor first.
St. John’s Wort
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Used by some people for depression, this herb hasn’t been approved by the FDA, and it’s not clear that it really helps. And if you take it along with antidepressants, it can lower your body temperature and cause trembling, diarrhea, confusion, and muscle stiffness. It also may keep some drugs used to treat heart problems, high cholesterol, and erectile dysfunction from working like they should. Check with your doctor to see if it might be helpful for you. If not, toss it.
Nonprescription Drugs for Sex
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A number of herbal supplements with “natural” ingredients claim to boost sexual health in men. For the most part, they don’t seem to work, and some can cause side effects. Many have ingredients that aren’t listed, like phosphodiesterase-5-inhibitors, which can affect other medicine you take.
Weight Loss Supplements
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Don’t trust anything that “guarantees” fast weight loss or claims to be an “herbal alternative” to a medicine approved by the FDA. It may have unsafe ingredients. The best way to get to a healthy weight is to do it slowly with a well-balanced diet and an exercise plan. Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure how to start.