Medications that can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription are referred to as OTC (over-the-counter) or as non-prescription drugs. These medications are often sold in pharmacies, grocery stores, express stores, and other retail settings. Examples are allergy medicines, aspirin, and cough syrups.
Generally, non-prescription medications are safe for self-medication when taken exactly as directed on the manufacturer’s insert. Occasionally, OTCs may interfere with the effectiveness of drugs prescribed by your doctor.
The following are some medication safety reminders for using OTCs:
When choosing an OTC
Ask your pharmacist if you have questions or need assistance in choosing the most appropriate and safest medication for you.
Make sure you read the manufacturer’s list of “indications” to help you decide if the OTC is right for you.
Read all warnings. If you have been diagnosed with a condition the manufacturer’s label cautions “do not take,” heed that precaution very seriously and talk to your doctor before taking.
Elderly persons experience the effects of OTCs differently than healthy younger adults. Tell your doctor or pharmacist what OTCs you take and ask if the dosing is right for you.
Children are not small adults. OTC medications dosed for adults are not meant for children. Ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you decide which OTCs are appropriate for the children in your care.
If you use other medications
Check the labels of OTC medications for the amount of acetaminophen contained, and check any prescription medications you are taking to see if they include acetaminophen. Do not take two medications containing acetaminophen as this can lead to overdose and liver damage. KnowYourDose.org provides additional information on taking the correct amount of acetaminophen to avoid overdose. Ask your pharmacist if you have questions about acetaminophen in your prescriptions or choosing a safe OTC product.
When your doctor or other health professional asks for a list of medications you use, include all OTCs you regularly use.
Several commonly used OTCs should not be taken with some prescription medications. Tell your doctor or pharmacist of any OTCs you take on a regular basis.
Consider special diet and other lifestyle choices when choosing OTCs
Other lifestyle choices can affect how an OTC drug affects you. Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption can affect how a non-prescription drug affects you.
A person following a low-salt diet can have adverse affects when taking OTCs with high amounts of sodium. Read all OTC labels and look for non-active ingredients.
At home, before taking the OTC medication:
Read the manufacturer’s insert regarding the OTC, particularly the “caution” or “warning” section.
Follow dosing instructions related to age, pregnancy, nursing, or other indication listed in the section labeled, “Warning.”
Use the cup, syringe, or other dosage device that comes with a medicine, as noted in FDA’s “Ten Tips to Prevent an Accidental Overdose.”
Read OTC product labels and follow instructions to take the correct dosage.
KnowYourDose.org provides information on taking the correct dosage of acetaminophen to avoid an overdose that can lead to liver damage.
If you do not understand the OTC manufacturer’s instructions, ask your pharmacist or other health professional if that drug is right for you.
Prepare for an emergency
In case of accidental overdose, call the poison control center immediately.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association provides consumer information regarding the safe and responsible use of OTC medicines and the importance of reading product labels. For more information