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The dangers of OTC medicines

OTC medication is wildly popular. It is used to self-medicate for a variety of health complaints starting from headache, muscle ache, heartburn, fever and digestive issues to allergies and other skin conditions. Over 300,000 OTC drugs is available in the US market alone.

Nearly 4 out of every 5 American adult takes OTC medicine to treat the conditions mentioned above. These drugs contain ingredients formerly available by prescription only, claims the New York Times. Reports from industry trade group Consumer Healthcare Products Association stated that over 100 ingredients, indications and dosage strengths available by prescription only till 1975 have now attained OTC status.

Misconceptions surrounding OTC drugs

People wrongly assume that since these drugs are made available to the public without a mandatory doctor’s prescription, they are safe. Sure, these medicines can provide quick relief from symptoms such as headaches or indigestion but when combined with other medication or misused, they can prove dangerous. OTC drug labels inform the customer about their potential side effects and active ingredients. Unfortunately, most often people do not read them. Tylenol, the most commonly used OTC drug contains acetaminophen which can be fatal if not administered properly. Most painkillers commonly contain acetaminophen which can lead to irreversible liver damage if taken beyond a certain amount. Similarly, even aspirin can be harmful if the recommended dosage, warnings and directions are not followed.

In 2014, the FDA had issued a warning against the usage of sodium phosphate laxatives. It had caused serious side effects in 54 cases and 13 deaths among people who either overdosed or had pre-existing medical conditions. These laxatives can dehydrate the person taking it and cause abnormal levels of electrolytes in their blood which could damage their kidney.

When acetaminophen is taken in conjunction with the nasal decongestant phenylephrine (PE), it can shoot up PE levels in the blood leading to insomnia, dizziness and increased blood pressure.

Antidepressants and stimulants should not be combined with decongestant pseudoephedrine i.e. a common ingredient for cough and cold medications.

Antihistamines in sleeping aids can cause seizures and heart arrhythmia if taken above the prescribed limit.

Steps to safely use OTC medication

Here are some ways you can take OTC medicines more responsibly –

  • If you’re on prescription medicines, consult with your doctor before taking any OTC drug.
  • If you’ve read the ingredient label on the drug and still fail to understand something, ask the pharmacist about it.
  • Limit usage. Only take OTC medication when necessary.
  • Follow the instructions on the drug label. Don’t take the medicine in a higher dose, for longer or more frequently than recommended.
  • Don’t take them if you’ve been drinking alcohol.
  • If you’re taking two OTC drugs and both contain the same active ingredient, don’t take them together. It will protect you from the possibility of an overdose.
  • Don’t take them with multivitamins as it could cause problems and side-effects.

OTC medicines can be a lifesaver when you’re looking for relief from short-term illnesses. However, like with all medicines, they come with their own set of health risks if not taken properly.