Over the Counter Medicines – OTC Medicines

Over-the-counter, or OTC medications, can be bought without a prescription and are intended to reduce fever and temporarily relieve minor aches and pains. The two main types of OTC pain medications are Acetaminophen and Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, or NSAIDs. They work in different ways and have different risks and benefits for each person to consider. Acetaminophen is the most common active drug ingredient in the U.S. and is found in more than 500 OTC and prescription medications, including pain relievers, fever reducers, sleep aids, and many coughs, cold, and allergy medications. NSAIDs are also very common and found in more than 900 OTC and prescription medications. The most well known OTC NSAIDs are Aspirin, Ibuprofen, and Naproxen Sodium. There are even some OTC pain medications that combine both Acetaminophen and NSAIDs. Having so many options to choose from can make picking the right medication for you or your loved one seem overwhelming. You want to choose the one that will do the best job treating your pain, but you also need to understand the medication’s risks.

OTC pain medications are effective and generally safe when used as directed. However, just because you can buy them without a prescription doesn’t mean they’re harmless, and they should never be taken casually because they can cause serious injury and even death if not taken properly. Be sure to discuss all your OTC medications with your healthcare professional. The Drug Facts label is found on most OTC medications and covers the important information you need to take them safely. Each time you take or give the pain medication be sure to read the entire label. The Active Ingredients Purpose section, tells you the main ingredients that make the medication work, and what they are designed to do. Always read the Warnings section of the label. It tells you when not to use the medication, when a healthcare professional needs to be consulted first, possible interactions or side effects, and when to stop taking the medication. Acetaminophen is safe when taken as directed. However, taking more than directed is an overdose. Severe liver damage may occur if you take more than the maximum daily dose of 4,000 milligrams in 24 hours, take it with other acetaminophen-containing drugs at the same time, or drink three or more alcoholic drinks a day while taking the medication. If you take a blood-thinning drug like Warfarin or have liver disease, you should talk with your pharmacist or another healthcare professional, before taking Acetaminophen.

People taking NSAIDs should read and follow the label closely, and consider their individual risk factors. NSAIDs can cause severe stomach bleeding, which may occur without any noticeable symptoms. You are at higher risk if you are age 60 or older, have had a history of stomach ulcers or bleeding problems, take a blood-thinning drug or a steroid drug, take with other OTC or prescription medications containing NSAIDs, drink three or more alcoholic drinks a day while using the medication, take more than the recommended dose or for a longer time than directed. Additionally, you should talk with a healthcare professional before taking an NSAID if you have had previous problems with pain medications; have a history of stomach problems; have high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, kidney disease, or asthma; are taking a diuretic.

And you should not use an NSAID right before or after heart surgery. The FDA has warned that all NSAIDs, except Aspirin, can put you at an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, either of which can lead to death. The FDA has advised that these serious side effects can occur as early as the first few weeks of use, and the risk can rise the longer you take them, and the higher dose you take. While everyone who takes an NSAID may be at risk, people who already have cardiovascular risk factors have the highest risk and should consult with a healthcare professional before using an NSAID. If you take low-dose aspirin for protection against heart attack and stroke, you should know that Ibuprofen can interfere with that protective effect. If pregnant, breastfeeding, or giving pain medication to a child, be sure to check the Drug Facts Label for specific instructions. With children, be sure to choose the dose that is appropriate for the child, always use a standard measuring device like the dosing cup, and keep medications Up and Away and out of their reach. The Directions section tells you how much, when, and how to take it.

You should never take more than the label says unless directed by a healthcare professional. Once you decide that medication is appropriate for you or your loved one make sure to TAKE it safely. Take only how much you need per day, not to exceed the daily limit, and take it for the shortest possible period of time. Never take OTC pain medications for more than 10 days, unless your healthcare professional OKs it. If a medication doesn’t help enough, it may be a sign that you need to talk with your healthcare professional about treating the cause of your pain, rather than just your painful symptoms. You should also consider whether there are non-drug therapies that will give you effective relief from your pain. Don’t take more than directed in one dose or per day, even if you still have a fever or pain. Don’t take another dose sooner than directed. Don’t double up by taking more than one Acetaminophen or NSAID containing medication at a time. Don’t forget your prescription medications, because they could contain these ingredients too. You should stop taking the medication and call your healthcare professional if your pain gets worse or lasts for more than 10 days, if you develop new symptoms, or if you have redness or swelling where you have the pain. If you or someone you love takes more than the recommended dose of pain medication, call your local Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, even if the person feels fine, since serious consequences can occur without any symptoms. If you are one of the tens of millions of Americans that reach for OTC medications for pain relief, make sure you are taking them safely.