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Virginia Kladder, M.D.

By: Virginia Kladder, M.D. on September 1st, 2014

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A Dose of OTC Education

Medical Perspectives

With the chilly fall air on its way, the first cold or flu of the season can't be far behind. At that first cough, sneeze or scratchy throat, you'll probably head off to the pharmacy to pick up an over-the-counter (OTC) cold or cough remedy.

According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, American consumers purchase 95 million packages of OTC cough and cold preparations each year, many with the false assumption the drugs are safe because they can be purchased without a prescription.

However, the chemicals that make up OTC medicines, dietary supplements, or vitamins have the potential to adversely interact with other medicines you might be taking -- and they often do.

Before you purchase any OTC remedy, it's best to learn about the risks and how you can use these medicines safely.

When medicines are used together (whether prescription or OTC), there can be adverse interactions. For example:Taking ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) along with a prescription anti-inflammatory medicine (Celebrex, Voltaren) could cause kidney problems, stomach ulcers and high blood pressure.

  • Decongestants (Sudafed), which can raise blood pressure, can work in opposition to medications intended to lower blood pressure.

In the case of OTC medicines, being forewarned is being forearmed. Start with the presumption that every OTC medication or supplement could cause an interaction, and take a few steps to be sure you aren't going to run into trouble.

  • Read labels carefully and consult with your physician on medicines you intend to purchase. Is it Robitussin or Robitussin D? Know what the abbreviations mean (i.e., "D" often means decongestant) and what the active ingredients are. The active ingredient in a decongestant, for example, can cause dangerous increases in blood pressure and heart-rhythm problems.

  • Some medications have several active ingredients. Be sure to consult with your physician about each. It's better to go with a single-ingredient remedy when you can.

  • Make sure you understand the warning labels on OTC products. If the manufacturer says, "Please see a doctor if condition persists," it's not just a warning to limit your use of the product. The message is meant as a warning that you could have a serious condition and that it's best to see a physician if you are still experiencing the described symptoms.

  • If you have difficulty seeing or understanding the label, ask the pharmacist for assistance or call your physician.

To be sure your OTC purchases do not cause adverse side effects, it's best to tell your physician about every medicine you are taking, including OTC medicines, supplements, vitamins and minerals.

Nobody likes to suffer through a cough or cold, but when you seek relief from an OTC remedy, just be sure you're not trading one problem for another, potentially worse, one.

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