What’s in Your Medicine Cabinet? Part 2: Over-the-Counter Medication

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In Part 2 of our three-part series What’s in Your Medicine Cabinet? We’re talking about over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Check out October’s issue for Part 1: 6 Concerns for Your Prescribed Meds, and be sure to look for Part 3: Supplements/Vitamins & Herbals in December’s issue. Last month, we discussed the aspects of prescription medications that can pertain to everyone, including cost, potential interactions, and basic storage and expiration dates. Much of that also applies to OTCs.

You can feel it coming on…that scratchy feeling at the back of your throat, the sniffly-stuffy nose, and sneezes that scare the dog. Even with the millions of dollars poured into research over the decades, no one has discovered a cure for the common cold.

Before putting a pot of chicken soup on to simmer and brewing that cup of tea–the old standbys–you head to the corner drugstore for an over-the-counter “cure.” The choices make you dizzier than your head cold.

In fact, cold medicine is one of the most commonly used OTCs, says Jack Lay, R.Ph., of Medicine Shoppe DeLand. Others include those used to treat pain, allergy/sinus conditions, heartburn, cough/flu, constipation/diarrhea, and skin (dermatologic) issues.

After years of trying various types of OTCs, we all know these medications may have limited effects on symptoms; some may work for each individual better than others work. Some people swear by common aspirin to soothe ache-y joints, while others find more relief from ibuprofen or similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. For some, effectiveness may depend on the brand, and often to save costs, people will use store brands of all these OTCs.

Effectiveness can also depend on how OTCs have been stored in your home. As with prescription medications, OTCs become less effective over time or when stored improperly. All medication should be stored in a dry, cool place (NOT the bathroom medicine cabinet). In addition, be sure to check the expiration date of your medication before taking it.
No matter the malady, OTCs can be a first-line of defense for consumers, because of both convenience and cost. In fact, 8 in 10 consumers use OTC medicines to relieve the symptoms of a range of illnesses.¹

While OTCs may seem safe due to their easy access and availability to the consumer, they can be harmful when used without the guidance of a healthcare professional. Care and caution still need to be used when taking nonprescription medication, which is the safest and effective when you have sought the advice of a healthcare professional and follow the directions on the label. This can be especially true for older adults, many of whom are also on prescription medications.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

  • “Increased access to OTC medicines is especially important for our maturing population. Two out of three older Americans rate their health as excellent to good, but four out of five reports at least one chronic condition.
  • Fact is, today’s OTC medicines offer greater opportunity to treat more of the aches and illnesses most likely to appear in our later years. As we live longer, work longer, and take a more active role in our own health care, the need grows to become better informed about self-care.
  • The best way to become better informed—for young and old alike—is to read and understand the information on OTC labels. Next to the medicine itself, label comprehension is the most important part of self-care with OTC medicines.”²

The side effects of prescription medications are well-known; we’ve all heard the speedy narration on television advertisements of the long list of potential side effects. Just because OTCs are readily available without a prescription or the recommendation of a physician, doesn’t mean taking them comes without risk of unwanted results.

Lay says it is important to use caution when using multiple-ingredient combination products–such as a cold medicine that offers relief from congestion, coughing, and fever–because these medications may increase the risk of therapeutic duplication and/or unnecessary drug use.
The latter proved true for Mary C. who ended up in the emergency room after taking a 12-hour sinus medication. Mary had been to the doctor days before and was treated for allergies but continued to experience worsening symptoms. Rather than return to the doctor, she bought a popular OTC in hopes of clearing up her severe congestion.

“An hour after going to bed, I got up feeling terribly sick to my stomach, so I went into the bathroom,” she says. “I felt dizzy and sat on the floor. Then everything went black.”

Mary said her husband and daughter called the ambulance after Mary seemed unable to stand. The ER doctor said her blood pressure was low and also diagnosed her with a severe sinus infection.

Cold medicine is one of the most commonly used Over The Counter Medications (OTCs)
Cold medicine is one of the most commonly used Over The Counter Medications (OTCs)

“I didn’t read the label or research the medication before taking it, otherwise I would have known that two of the side effects are nausea and dizziness,” she says. “I also realize now that trying to self-medicate without talking to my doctor first wasn’t the best decision!”
As with any medication, you should talk with your doctor or the pharmacist, even if you have taken a certain OTC in the past. If since then you’ve started a new prescription medication, for instance, you could experience a reaction you hadn’t experienced in the past.

This is why it’s important before choosing an OTC to check for potential interactions. Lay suggests visiting the website www.drugs.com, which offers a free and reliable drug interaction checker. He explains OTC medications of all types may interact negatively with other OTC and/or prescription medication you’re taking. They may also interact with certain foods and beverages, as well as other illnesses or diseases you may already have.

An example of a drug-drug interaction, according to the website, would be taking a pain medication such as Vicodin with an antihistamine such as Benadryl. Since each of these medications causes drowsiness, taking them together will multiply the effect.²

Drug-food/beverage interactions are more common with prescription medications and include food and drinks like grapefruit juice, bananas, kale, milk, black licorice, salami, and walnuts, according to the Consumer Reports.³ But OTCs can interact with certain foods and beverages, too. When taking any medication, try to avoid alcohol. Combined with aspirin, especially with regular use and consumption of each, alcohol can cause gastrointestinal bleeding.⁴

Finally, drug-disease interactions occur with conditions like high blood pressure. Taking an over-the-counter oral decongestant like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) “may increase blood pressure and can be dangerous.”⁵

The people most susceptible to mild, moderate, or even life-threatening interactions when taking OTCs include the elderly, patients with pre-existing conditions, and those using prescription drugs.

Lay says those folks especially should always consult their pharmacist or primary care provider before using any non-prescription drug.

This is especially important if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Your symptoms are very bad.
  • You are not sure what is wrong with you.
  • You have a long-term medical problem or you are taking prescription medicines.⁶

So before heading to the corner drugstore, check with your doctor! Seeking good medical advice is your best prescription for good health.

If you have any questions feel free to reach out to Aging Tree or any of their approved Business Partners by calling 1-866-320-8803.

1.https://www.chpa.org/marketstats.aspx, 2.https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/Choosingtherightover-the-countermedicineOTCs/ucm150299.htm#AdviceforAmericansaboutSelf-Care:AccessKnowledgePower, 3. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2013/11/don-t-mix-your-meds-with-these-foods/index.htm , 4.http://www.drugsdb.com/otc/aspirin/aspirin-and-alcohol/

Amanda Eastep

Amanda Cleary Eastep is a freelance marketing writer for businesses and universities at Word Ninja. She believes words should not only inform, but also offer encouragement and hope. She blogs about faith, family and life change at “Living Between the Lines.”

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