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How to Safely Choose OTC Medicines

Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and pain relievers, laxatives, and headache remedies may treat different conditions, but they all have one thing in common. They’re serious medicines that need to be taken with care.

OTC medicines may carry all the same side effects and risks as prescription medicines, even though you don’t need a prescription to buy them. Generally, they are safe when taken exactly as directed on the label., But they may be dangerous if the wrong dosage is taken or the correct dosage is taken too often.

When taking OTCs, always read the label. This will help you decide if you have picked the right product for your symptoms. By reading the label, you will find the dosing instructions and read about any warnings that may apply to you. This includes not to take a medicine if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson disease, or if you are pregnant.

The label will tell you what to stay away from while taking the medicine. Like prescription medicines, some OTC medicines can cause side effects or reactions. Or may interact with other medicines you take. Read the label to see what to stay away from while you’re taking an OTC medicine.

Take medicine exactly as stated on the label. If that dosage or amount doesn't help your symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist. Contact your healthcare provider if you still have symptoms after the number of days advised on the bottle. Or if your symptoms get worse.

Use extra caution when taking more than one medicine at a time.

Some prescription medicines contain the same ingredients as OTCs. Combining two or more of these medicines would result in an overdose.

If, for instance, you take a prescription medicine that contains acetaminophen, and then take an OTC form of acetaminophen, you could risk developing liver failure.

Always read and follow the directions on OTC medicines. Store all your medicines in a cool dry place, and in their original containers. When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for advice.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Marianne Fraser MSN RN
  • Rajadurai Samnishanth
  • Rita Sather RN