Tips for avoiding the risks of over the counter meds

It’s the season for coughs, sniffles, trips to the pharmacy, and unfortunately, self treatment with over the counter medications. Believing over the counter (OTC) medications are risk free and can be used safely without consulting a healthcare provider are common misconceptions. Direct to consumer medication advertising and access to OTC medicine allows people to take part in their healthcare, but can be dangerous. Some dangers include potential for overdose, creating drug interactions and mistreating serious conditions.

Over the counter medications have confusing labels which can lead to incorrect dosing, drug interactions and treating symptoms one doesn’t have. An OTC’s front label states the intended use or company name, but often does not reference the active ingredients. The cough and cold aisle contains different products such as Robitussin, Vicks, Theraful, Delsym, but a closer look at the active ingredients reveals many similarities between products. Frequently, people choose a combination cough and cold medication which can include ingredients for cough, pain, congestion and sleep. If unaware, people can be treating symptoms they do not have and increase their chance for side effects.

Combination products can increase the risk of taking duplicate ingredients and lead to medication overdose. Tylenol or acetaminophen is a familiar example of this problem since it is found in various OTC medications ranging from cold medicine to sleep aids. Remember to read everything on an OTC’s label, including active ingredients, uses, warnings and directions. Considering the risks, reading the label is often not enough and it is best to consult a pharmacist. By talking with a pharmacist, one can safely treat symptoms and avoid incorrect dosing, drug interactions and side effects.

Consulting with a pharmacist is important in preventing mistreatment of an illness or a chronic medical condition. People should explain onset of illness, current symptoms and any therapies they are trying. Since many OTC products can worsen medical conditions and cause drug interactions, it is vital to mention your medical history. For example, some cold medications can cause issues for people with history of heart problems and should be avoided.

Considering the potential of medical interactions, it is smart to use one pharmacy for all medication needs. Using one pharmacy gives pharmacists access to a person’s medication history, helping better prevent drug and disease related interactions. Coumadin or warfarin is very prone to serious drug interactions even with OTC products like aspirin or Pepto-Bismol, and it illustrates why using one pharmacy is crucial. Building a relationship with a pharmacist can help facilitate communication and increase the success of your treatment. Even though OTC medications have many risks, if used correctly, they can be a safe and effective treatment for many common illnesses. Keep in mind the importance of talking to a pharmacist, using one pharmacy and reading OTC labels carefully. By remembering these tips and building relationships with providers, people can reduce medication related risks and improve their healthcare.

Elizabeth Wimmler is a PharmD, RPh at Glander Prescriptions Plus Pharmacy