A doctor’s checklist for choosing over-the-counter medications for adults

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

I don’t know about you, but when I go to the cough-and-cold section of the pharmacy, I feel a little overwhelmed.  I think I know what I want but then see the same brand with just a little different type or amount of ingredients.  Which is better for your symptoms? (Make no mistake, the over-the-counter meds treat symptoms, not the underlying problem.  Many times that’s all you need, just to feel a little better until your body agrees.)

To the rescue comes the FDA, with a printable PDF checklist.  Actually, it’s pretty basic information, but maybe it will make you think a little and not go for the shotgun, treat-everything (even-if-you-don’t-have-some-of-them) medicine.

But why wouldn’t you want to do that?

First, there are potential side effects.

But the main danger I see is duplication.

  • Be sure to read the active ingredients.  Some medicines contain acetaminophen for aches, pains and fever.  If you take one of those, don’t take Tylenol or another non-aspirin pain reliever on top of it.  Too much acetaminophen can severely damage your liver.
  • Don’t buy a cough medicine with a decongestant (pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine) if you’re already taking a cold medicine with that–unless you want to be wired all night and run the risk of increasing your blood pressure.
  • Active ingredients for cough include dextromethorphan (stops cough) and guaifenesin (thins mucus).

Remember, these medications affect your body.  Unlike putting together that swing set, always read the directions.  Follow them!  If you have questions, ask a pharmacist, not just the closest salesperson.  Getting the best relief for your symptoms will be your reward.

Have you ever had trouble with over-the-counter decisions or side effects?


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5 Responses to “A doctor’s checklist for choosing over-the-counter medications for adults”

  1. Sagan Says:

    Pretty much any kind of medication is enough to scare me into not using them. I don’t understand the labels, a lot of the time, and I dislike the potential side effects. So I just stay away from them!

    That’s good that they’ve got a little checklist, though. It’s good to go prepared if you’re going to be choosing between medications!

    Sagans last blog post..Life Lessons: Overdoing it

  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    That’s fine Sagan. Most are for comfort and symptom relief, not actually treatment of cause. Thanks for your opinion.

  3. cathy Says:

    Good stuff! I rarely take any type of cold medicine – the side effects are almost as bad as the actual cold for me – but when buying for myself and my family, I avoid the ones that have several different drugs bundled together. There’s rarely a time when we want or need everything that is in the ones that have several different drugs together – and it avoids duplicating that you warn about above. Better to take a couple of different pills and be sure of what you’re taking than accidentally doubling up on a medicine!

    cathys last blog post..Friday Link Love

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Cathy, sounds like you have it under control. I rarely take those meds because of side effects also.

  5. Planning for Getting Sick « The Mama Bee Says:

    [...] things to have so that you don’t have to leave the house to buy them if you get sick.   Here’s some good info on choosing over-the-counter [...]

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