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Learn More About OTC Medicine

What Are OTC Medicines, Anyway?

Dr. Christina Darakjian Profile Photo

Written by Dr. Christina Darakjian on August 31, 2021

Medically reviewed by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology

When it comes to over-the-counter medicines, there may be a lot that you do not know off the bat. There are a multitude of over-the-counter medicines that are commercially available, all of which contain different formulations for different intended usages.

Learning more about over-the-counter medicines can be a great way to make much more educated decisions about your health and the health of your loved ones, and if you are looking for a resource that will help you learn, this is your complete guide to over-the-counter medicine.

If you want your questions answered, you have come to the right place.

OTC Medicines: What Are They and What Do They Do?

Essentially, over-the-counter medicines are those that can be sold directly to you with no need for a prescription from your doctor. When you walk into your local pharmacy or drugstore, the over-the-counter medicines are those that line the shelves of the medicine aisles, which you can purchase at any time.

Over-the-counter medicines come in handy in a variety of situations. OTC medicines can ease a wide variety of symptoms, including:

  • Pain, including headaches or other aches and pains
  • Coughs
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Digestive problems
  • Acne

That said, there are many OTC medicines that contain active ingredients with the potential for misuse at dosages that are higher than recommended.

Misuse of Over-the-Counter Medicines

Misuse of a medication entails using more than the recommended dose, using a medicine for a purpose other than the one intended, taking medicine solely for the side effects it may have on your body (like excessive drowsiness), or mixing several different OTC medicines together to create a certain effect.

Taking OTC medicines in large doses in this way can have extreme impacts on the brain, and on your overall health. When taking over-the-counter medicines, it is critical that you follow the recommended dosages on the drug label or consult your doctor if you have any questions or uncertainties. Getting professional advice from your doctor can help keep you from doing damage to your body by taking too many doses of a medicine, and they may also be able to advise you when it comes to drug interactions and side effects.

Make Sure To Read the Drug Labels

When it comes to safely using over-the-counter medicine, reading the drug facts label is essential.

Not only does this label provide you with proper usage information, it also includes the list of ingredients, potential side effects, and other important information such as signs you should contact your doctor. If you or your loved ones are allergic to certain ingredients commonly used in medications, this label could be life-saving.

Checking the label before using a medication for the first time can also alert you to any potentially dangerous side effects so that you can plan appropriately. For example, some OTC medicines can cause drowsiness, so you may want to time your dosage appropriately and avoid driving or engaging in strenuous activity after taking the medicine. OTC medicines can cause other side effects too, and reading the label can help you be prepared.

Even more, the drug facts label is especially important if you are already taking other medicines or if you are on prescription medications. Many OTC medicines have many potential drug interactions, some of which can be extremely dangerous. Reading the label will let you know which drugs you should not be taking in combination with that specific medicine. When it comes to drug interactions, it never hurts to consult your doctor for further clarification. They will be able to help you plan out the proper method of treatment so that no harm comes your way.

How To Reduce Risks with OTC Medicine

Evidently, there are some risks associated with OTC medicines, and really any medicines. That said, there are a few ways that you can limit the risks associated with OTC medicine:

  • Limit your use of OTC medicines, and only use them when you need them (unless otherwise directed by your physician).
  • If you take any prescription medicines, you should talk to your doctor before you start taking a new OTC medicine. Similarly, you should also consult your doctor if there is any about the medicine that raises doubts, concerns, or questions for you.
  • Always read the drug facts label very carefully to make sure you understand the ingredients and any possible adverse effects.
  • Only take the medicine the way that the drug facts label, or your doctor, tells you to. Do not take doses more frequently than you should, and make sure to follow the proper dosage amount.
  • Do not take OTC medicine, or any medicine, with alcoholic drinks.
  • Do not mix medicine into foods or hot drinks unless your doctor tells you otherwise, as this can actually disrupt the way the medicine works.
  • Consult your doctor before taking vitamins or supplements along with an OTC medicine

Along with these general guidelines, there are also certain risk factors for adverse reactions.

Patients with the following conditions should take extra care when it comes to OTC medicines:

  • Asthma
  • Bleeding or blood clotting disorders
  • Breathing problems
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Immune system problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Liver problems
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Thyroid problems

The above conditions may put people at a higher risk of experiencing adverse effects from OTC medicines, but anyone can experience them.

A good rule of thumb is to play close attention to your body and how you feel after taking an OTC medicine. If you are taking medicine for a cold or other form of illness, pay attention to any new symptoms that appear after taking the medicine that you did not experience before, especially if the new symptom is one you do not usually experience when you have a cold.

Clean Medicine: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Clean medicine is a great alternative to many commonly available drugstore OTC products, and it may help give you some peace of mind when you or your loved ones are in need of safe and effective remedies.

Essentially, clean medicine is medicine that contains the active ingredients you need without the inactive, artificial ingredients you don’t need… or want. Truth is, inactive, artificial ingredients have been linked to many adverse effects, including allergic reactions. Chemical dyes and artificial sweeteners specifically have been linked to many unwanted health risks, which is why clean medicine might be just the thing you didn’t know you needed.

Less artificial ingredients means less health risks posed to you and your family each time you opt for OTC medicine, and who wouldn’t want that? Hopping on board the clean medicine movement can change you and your family’s medicine choices for the better, and your body will thank you in the long run.

If you have questions about clean medicine or the other options available to you in your local medicine aisle, you should consult your doctor to have your questions answered. Plus, your doctor can act as a resource for you when it comes to all-things OTC medicine-related so you can get further information whenever you need it.

The Bottom Line

Over-the-counter medicine is medicine that you can buy directly from a pharmacy or drugstore (or really any store at all) without needing a prescription. This can be extremely helpful and convenient when you or your loved ones are feeling under-the-weather, but it also makes it very easy to misuse these medications.

Following the correct dosage and frequency of dosages for the OTC medicines you choose is absolutely critical for protecting your health, and taking more medicine than is recommended, or taking more doses than is recommended, can result in adverse effects.

Additionally, even though anyone is susceptible to experience side effects and other adverse effects from OTC medicine, those with certain health conditions have a higher likelihood of experiencing these. People with asthma, epilepsy, heart disease, liver problems, or kidney problems are just a few examples of vulnerable populations when it comes to adverse effects.

In general, it is essential to carefully read the drug facts label on OTC medicine before taking it, and you should consult your doctor whenever you have questions.