Understanding Over-the-Counter Medications: What You Need to Know

July 9, 2024

As a pharmacist, I often get questions about over-the-counter (OTC) medications and how they differ from prescription medications. Today, I’d like to shed some light on this topic, highlight some common OTC medications and their uses, and offer safety tips to help you make informed decisions about your health.

The Difference Between Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications

Prescription Medications:

  • Doctor’s Approval Required: Prescription medications require a written order from a licensed healthcare provider. This ensures that the medication is appropriate for your specific medical condition.
  • Tailored Treatment: These medications are often stronger and more potent than OTC drugs. They are tailored to treat specific health conditions and usually require close monitoring by a healthcare professional.
  • Pharmacy Dispensed: Prescription drugs are dispensed by a pharmacist who provides important information on how to take the medication, potential side effects, and interactions with other drugs.

Over-the-Counter Medications:

  • No Prescription Needed: OTC medications can be purchased without a prescription. They are deemed safe and effective for use by the general public without the need for a doctor’s supervision.
  • Common Ailments: These medications are used to treat common ailments such as headaches, minor aches and pains, colds, allergies, and indigestion.
  • Wide Availability: You can find OTC medications in pharmacies, grocery stores, and other retail outlets.  Certain OTC medications may only be found in the self-selection area of an accredited pharmacy.

Common Over-the-Counter Medications and Their Uses

Pain Relievers:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Used to reduce fever and relieve mild to moderate pain from headaches, muscle aches, menstrual periods, colds, and sore throats.
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin): A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that helps reduce fever and treat pain or inflammation caused by conditions such as headaches, toothaches, back pain, arthritis, menstrual cramps, or minor injuries.
  • Aspirin (ASA): Another NSAID, aspirin is used to reduce pain, fever, or inflammation. It’s also used in low doses to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Cold and Flu Remedies:

  • Decongestants (Pseudoephedrine, Phenylephrine): These help relieve nasal and sinus congestion caused by colds or allergies.
  • Cough Suppressants (Dextromethorphan): Used to help control a persistent cough.
  • Expectorants (Guaifenesin): These help thin and loosen mucus in the airways, clearing congestion and making breathing easier.
  • Antihistamines (Diphenhydramine, Loratadine): Used to relieve allergy symptoms, including sneezing, runny nose, and itching.

Allergy Treatments:

  • Loratadine (Claritin), Cetirizine (Reactine), Desloratadine (Aerius): These are newer, non-drowsy antihistamines used to treat allergic rhinitis and chronic urticaria (hives).
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl): An older antihistamine that can cause drowsiness, used to treat more severe allergy symptoms or for nighttime relief.

Safety Tips and When to Seek Professional Advice

Read Labels Carefully:

  • Always read the labels on OTC medications to understand the active ingredients, recommended dosage, and potential side effects. Look for any warnings or contraindications, especially if you have underlying health conditions.

Avoid Mixing Medications:

  • Be cautious about taking multiple medications at the same time. Some OTC drugs contain the same active ingredients, which can lead to accidental overdosing. If you’re unsure, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Consider Your Health Conditions:

  • Certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or liver disease, may require you to avoid certain OTC medications. Consult with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.

Be Aware of Side Effects:

  • OTC medications can and do cause side effects, just like prescription drugs. Common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, stomach upset, and allergic reactions.

Know When to Seek Professional Advice:

  • If your symptoms persist or worsen after using an OTC medication, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional. Additionally, if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or caring for a child, seek advice before using any OTC medication.

Understanding over-the-counter medications and how to use them safely can help you manage minor health issues effectively. However, always remember that pharmacists and healthcare providers are here to assist you. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns about your medications.

Stay healthy and informed!