Top 5 things to consider when purchasing over-the-counter medications. A pharmacist’s perspective.

Top 5 things to consider when purchasing over-the-counter medications. A pharmacist’s perspective.

It is undeniable that over-the-counter (OTC) medications have taken over every household in America. Even if you are perfectly healthy, I can safely assume that you have at least some form of pain or fever medication in your medicine cabinet, and there’s a chance that it’s expired too. The accessibility of over-the-counter medications makes our lives a little less painful. As a practicing pharmacist for over a decade, I have consulted thousands of patients on OTC medications. Here are my top five things to keep in mind when purchasing over-the-counter (OTC) medications for self-treatment.

Tip number 1: Brand name vs Generic name

TLDR; Always buy generic medications when they are available.

To add to the already complex world of medicine, each medication has two names, brand and generic. For example, Tylenol is the brand name of an active compound called acetaminophen (generic name), which is commonly used for pain and fever reduction. The brand name makes it easier for consumers to remember, and also serves as brand recognition for the drug manufacturers. The important thing to keep in mind is that both the brand and generic medications work exactly the same way - both are FDA approved in very similar manners. The only difference may be the inactive ingredients used to package the medications together. Therefore, I always recommend my patients purchase generics because they are more cost-effective. Keep in mind that some newer medications are sold exclusively under the brand name. The US government incentivizes drug manufacturers by giving exclusive patents and rights for newly discovered drugs - a way to help recoup billions of dollars poured into drug development.

Tip number 2: Always read the active ingredients on the label.

TLDR; Pay attention to the active ingredients on the label to avoid duplication of therapy.

Every bottle of OTC medication should have two classes of ingredients on it, active and inactive. The active ingredients are the actual compounds that treat your symptoms. On the other hand, inactive ingredients do not have any effect on providing you with symptom relief. Inactive ingredients serve to (1) stabilize the active ingredients, and (2) act as fillers to help maintain the structure and integrity of the medication. You should pay close attention to the active ingredients when taking multiple medications, but why? The reason is that the same active ingredient may be found across several combination medications you are taking. Which means you may be overdosing. 

Tip number 3: Always take as directed by your doctor or the packaging labels.

TLDR; Taking OTC medications longer than instructed can potentially mask symptoms of more serious underlying health problems, and can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment.

OTC medications are generally only used on an as-needed basis to help curve your symptoms. However, depending on your health condition, your doctor may ask you to use OTC medication on a daily basis to treat your condition. If that is the case, your doctor will be monitoring your usage. For medications that are used without a doctor’s supervision, you should only be taking them as needed and only for the duration specified on the medication label. Usually, if your symptoms do not improve within a few days, you should be evaluated by your doctor. Continuing to take OTC medications on a regular basis could mask more serious underlying health issues. For example, taking OTC Advil can help relieve some pain, but constant pain without a diagnosis could mean there are other underlying issues that Advil is masking, such as cancer. Also, certain medications have what is known as the “rebound effect” - a worsening of the symptom caused by the over usage of the medication. Thus, it is highly recommended that you read the medication labels and follow instructions carefully before starting OTC medications.

Tip number 4: Don’t be fooled by the marketing

TLDR: Similar to tip #1. Don’t buy into the marketing of name-branded medications. Always look for cheaper generic alternatives when available. 

Drug manufacturers will go out of their way to insert their brand into your daily lives – nowadays, that’s through online marketing. We have all heard of good ole Dr. Google. When we are sick, our first inclination is to Google search our symptoms. Google has done a decent job at providing us with some basic health information, but we still have to remember that over 70% of Google’s revenue relies heavily on advertisements. What that means is that drug manufacturers will pay to be ranked first on our Google searches. So, be aware of health articles and blogs you read online because those could be paid by drug manufacturers to push their products. Always consult with your pharmacist or doctor if you are unsure about your research.

Tip number 5: OTC medications can potentially interfere with your prescription medications. It can also interact with your food and supplements.

TLDR; If you are taking prescription medications or herbal supplements, consult with your pharmacist or doctor before starting any OTC medications as they can potentially interact with one another.

Medication interactions are often an afterthought when starting OTC medications. However, it is important to consult with your pharmacist or doctor when you are taking multiple prescription medications and/or herbal supplements before starting any OTC medication. Medication interactions can sometimes lead to serious overdosing or underdosing, both of which can have long-term effects on your health. Overdosing leads to an increased risk of unwanted side effects, and underdosing can worsen your health issues as you are not being treated properly. Most medications are processed by your liver, so consumption of alcohol will change the way medications are being processed and can lead to a serious problem. Therefore, it is recommended to never drink alcohol while on medications.

It may be overwhelming to do thorough research before starting any medications, but it is worth your time in the long run. Remember, you can always consult with your local pharmacist or doctor.

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