(BlackDoctor.org) — Americans spend $17 billion a year on over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. OTC medications come in a variety of brands and formulations that cater to every symptom, and you can purchase them day or night without a prescription. But…do OTC drugs really treat the body effectively? Are there some that can and should be trusted/avoided more than others?
Also, at what point should we talk to a doctor? When is it okay to self-medicate?
Do You Really Know What You’re Taking?
Many people don’t have a clue what they’re buying and taking, says Timothy W. Cutler, Pharm.D., a pharmacist and associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco.
For example, “Do you know that when you’re taking a Tylenol PM, you’re not just taking acetaminophen, but also a whopping dose of Benadryl?” Cutler asks.
You should. Especially if you’re allergic to the antihistamine – or giving it to your grandmother.
“Benadryl is inappropriate for older adults because it’s so sedating,” Cutler warns. “They could take it, get up in the middle of the night and fall.”
Most Americans often make other assumptions: We believe government-approved OTC drugs are 100% safe, that doctors know how a patient will react to them and that we know exactly what we’re taking.
Of course, prescription and over-the-counter medications can be safe and do wonders to treat illnesses and keep us healthy. But for drugs to work effectively, people who take them need to be better informed, Cutler says.
Drugs Truths You Need To Know
Myth 1: OTC drugs are completely safe.
Truth: Definitely not. For example, what could seem more innocuous than aspirin?Although aspirin was the pain reliever of choice in the first half of the 20th century and regained popularity as a preventive treatment for heart attacks and strokes, the drug would never make it through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory process today, says Cutler.
Or, at least, it couldn’t be sold over the counter, he adds, as it may cause serious gastrointestinal problems and easy bruising.
“It’s also potentially dangerous to take before surgery,” Cutler says. It thins blood and may lead to excessive bleeding.
He adds that cough and cold remedies, laxatives or anything with acetaminophen or ibuprofen may also promote excessive bleeding during surgery.
“Patients think these drugs are safe and not a big deal,” Cutler says.
Follow dosing directions with all over-the-counter medications and always check with your doctor or pharmacist before combining.
Myth 2: It’s always clear exactly what you’re taking.
Truth: Just like a package of potato chips, OTC drugs also have added ingredients that aren’t necessarily written in bold letters on the label.
For example, NyQuil promises a restful night’s sleep, but how? With 18%-20% alcohol. Some people, such as recovering alcoholics and diabetics on certain medications, shouldn’t take alcohol in any form, says Cutler.
Read the fine print and find out the medication’s ingredients before you take it.
Myth 3: If the FDA approves a drug, it must be safe.
Truth: Not always. The FDA has approved many OTC drugs for children’s decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants and expectorants. Yet more than 1,500 children were harmed or died after using such remedies during a one-year period, according to a 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
Doctors later petitioned the FDA to review the products, and in 2008, the FDA recommended that over-the-counter drugs not be given to children under age 2.