Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are readily available and can be sold to anyone without a prescription. These products are regularly used for everyday complaints such as allergies and pain; and the OTC aisle is also a frequently visited spot in the pharmacy during cold and flu season to treat symptoms like cough and congestion. As we enter into colder months with the potential for cold, flu and COVID infections, here are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to OTC products.
Pay attention to active ingredients. The active ingredient in a medication is the part that causes therapeutic effects. For example, acetaminophen is an active ingredient, and it results in the therapeutic effects of relieving pain or reducing a fever. It is a commonly used ingredient that can be found in hundreds of OTC products as well as many prescription medications.
The tricky thing is that the brand names we see on the shelf in the OTC aisle don't always include the name of the active ingredient. Tylenol, Unisom PM Pain, and Nyquil Cold & Flu are all examples of OTC products that contain the active ingredient acetaminophen. However, you'll notice that acetaminophen is not in the brand name of any of the above products. This can make it easy for someone to grab a product without even realizing what is in it. Some people may end up taking something they shouldn't or doubling up on the same ingredient with different products. This can be a problem as some drugs like acetaminophen can have very serious side effects if you take too much of it.
So, what can you do? Make sure to read the product label carefully and look at the active ingredients when selecting a product. In addition to the active ingredient, OTC product labels also include information on what the medication is used for, who should and should not take it, and how it should be taken.
Even with products you are familiar with it is important to read this because changes may be made to products or labeling. Additionally, some products may have different directions. For example, Tylenol has many different formulations including Tylenol Regular Strength, Tylenol Extra Strength and Tylenol Arthritis to name a few. All of these contain the active ingredient acetaminophen, but the strength and directions for each is different. Make sure to familiarize yourself with a product each time you purchase.
It is also important to remember that over the counter medications have the potential for side effects just like prescription medications. A common misconception is that since OTC meds don't require a prescription they do not have any risks. This however is incorrect and all medications including OTC agents have the potential for side effects. You can make yourself aware of these by again reading the package labeling. Warnings including potential interactions or side effects will also be included on the product label of OTC products. Read these before starting a medication so you know what to watch out for after you begin taking them.
The world of OTC agents can be overwhelming but familiarizing yourself with the information on product labels can help you be a more informed consumer. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist or health care provider if an OTC agent would be appropriate for you.
Lexie Powell is an assistant professor in the Pharmacotherapy Department at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences based in Spokane.