A nonprescription medicine—sometimes called an over-the-counter, or OTC, medicine—is any drug that you can buy without a doctor's prescription. But don't assume that all nonprescription drugs are safe for you. These drugs can interact with other medicines and can sometimes cause serious health problems. And if you take more than the normal or recommended amount, overdose may occur.
Some medicines should only be used by adults or older children. Be sure to read the package instructions carefully, or ask a pharmacist before giving any product to an infant or young child. If you are pregnant, always check with your pharmacist or doctor before using any nonprescription medicine, to make sure it is safe to use during pregnancy.
Carefully read the label of any nonprescription drug you use, especially if you also take prescription medicines for other health problems. Ask your pharmacist for help in finding a nonprescription drug best suited to your needs. Use these tips on how to avoid common medicine problems.
Some common nonprescription medicines include:
These drugs can be very helpful when used properly but can cause serious problems if used incorrectly. The following tips will help you use common nonprescription drugs wisely and safely. In some cases, you may find that you don't need to take them at all.
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Antacids are taken to relieve heartburn or indigestion caused by excess stomach acid. There are several kinds of antacids. Learn what ingredients are in each type so that you can avoid any adverse effects.
Acid reducers decrease the amount of acid produced by the stomach. They help relieve heartburn. There are several types of nonprescription acid reducers on the market. Examples include H2 blockers (such as famotidine and ranitidine) and proton pump inhibitors (such as lansoprazole and omeprazole). Each has slightly different cautions for use. Read and carefully follow the instructions included with the package.
Antacid and acid reducer precautions
There are four types of products used to prevent or treat constipation: bulking agents, stool softeners, osmotic laxatives, and stimulant laxatives.
Bulking agents, such as bran or psyllium (found in Metamucil, for example) ease constipation by increasing the volume of stool and making it easier to pass. Regular use of bulking agents is safe and helps make them more effective.
Stool softeners (such as Colace and Docusate Calcium) soften the stool, making it easier to pass. Stool softeners can be most effective if you drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Osmotic laxatives, such as Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia, or Miralax, and nonabsorbable sugars (such as lactulose or sorbitol), hold fluids in the intestine. They also draw fluids into the intestine from other tissue and blood vessels. This extra fluid in the intestines makes the stool softer and easier to pass. Drink plenty of water when you use this type of laxative.
Stimulant laxatives (such as Correctol, Ex-Lax, and Senokot) make stool move faster through the intestines by irritating the lining of the intestines. Regular use of stimulant laxatives is not recommended. Stimulant laxatives change the tone and feeling in the large intestine, and you can become dependent on using laxatives all the time to have a bowel movement.
There are two types of antidiarrheal drugs, those that thicken the stool and those that slow intestinal spasms.
Thickening mixtures (such as psyllium) absorb water. This helps bulk up the stool and make it more firm.
Antispasmodic antidiarrheal products slow the spasms of the intestine. Loperamide (the active ingredient in products such as Imodium A-D and Pepto Diarrhea Control) is an example of this type of preparation. Some products contain both thickening and antispasmodic ingredients.
In general, whether you take medicines for your cold or not, you'll get better in about a week. Rest and liquids are the best treatment for a cold. Antibiotics will not help. But nonprescription medicines help relieve some cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion and cough.
Allergy symptoms, especially runny nose, often respond to antihistamines. Antihistamines are also found in many cold medicines, often together with a decongestant.
Decongestants make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose, allowing air to pass through. They also help relieve runny nose and postnasal drip, which can cause a sore throat.
Decongestants can be taken orally or used as nose drops or sprays. Oral decongestants (pills) provide longer relief, but they cause more side effects.
Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other drugs than oral decongestants are. Saline nose drops are not decongestants but may help keep nasal tissues moist so the tissues can filter air.
Your pharmacist can suggest a medicine for your cold and allergy symptoms.
There are two types of coughs: productive and nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). It's generally best if you don't try to stop (suppress) a productive cough. A nonproductive cough does not produce sputum. It is a dry cough.
Water and other liquids, such as fruit juices, are good cough syrups. They help soothe the throat and also moisten and thin mucus so it can be coughed up more easily.
You can make a simple and soothing cough syrup at home by mixing 1 part lemon juice with 2 parts honey. Use as often as needed. This can be given to children 1 year and older.
There are two kinds of cough medicines:
Cough preparation precautions
Antihistamines dry up nasal secretions and are commonly used to treat allergy symptoms and itching.
There are two types:
If your runny nose is caused by allergies, an antihistamine may help. For cold symptoms, home treatment and perhaps a decongestant will probably be more helpful. It is usually best to take only single-ingredient allergy or cold preparations, instead of those containing many active ingredients.
Products such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are single-ingredient antihistamine products.
Products such as Coricidin, Dristan, and Triaminic contain both a decongestant and an antihistamine.
There are dozens of pain-relief products. Most contain either aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These three drugs, as well as naproxen, relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
When you buy pain relievers, keep in mind that generic products are chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually work equally well.
Aspirin is widely used for relieving pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces swelling and inflammation. Aspirin comes as adult-strength (325 mg) or low-dose (81 mg). Although it seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug.
Other aspirin uses
In addition to relieving pain and inflammation, aspirin is effective against many other ailments. Because of the danger of side effects and the interactions aspirin may have with other medicines, do not try these uses of aspirin without a doctor's supervision.
Heart attack and stroke: Aspirin in low but regular doses may help prevent heart attacks and strokes in certain people. For more information, see:
Migraines: Regular, low-dose aspirin use may reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. For more information, see the topic Migraine Headaches.
Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in products such as Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (in products such as Aleve) are other NSAIDs. Like aspirin, these drugs relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also like aspirin, they can cause nausea, stomach irritation, and heartburn.
NSAID precautions (Also see Aspirin precautions)
Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in products such as Tylenol) reduces fever and relieves pain. It does not have the anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDS, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, but it also does not cause stomach upset and other side effects.
|Consumer Healthcare Products Association: OTCsafety.org|
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This website has tips for safe use of over-the-counter medicines for children and adults. It has information about drug labels, ingredients, drug interactions, and more.
|Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Consumer Health Information|
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This website has health information for people of all ages. Topics include the following: medicines, food and nutrition, medical devices, cosmetics, and animal health. Spanish materials are also available.
Other Works Consulted
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Unintentional drug poisoning in the United States. Available online:
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Margaret Hetherington, PHM, BsC - Pharmacy|
|Last Revised||July 6, 2011|
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