By Giang Lam, clinical pharmacist at CHOC
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications provide quick access to treatment options for a variety of minor ailments. They enable patients to self-treat many symptoms with relatively low cost, and avoid unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office. Unfortunately, the accessibility and affordability of OTC medications has also led to many misconceptions regarding over-the-counter medication safety.
Many consumers believe that OTC medications are completely safe with no risk of side effects. Since they don’t require a physician visit or a prescription, many people think OTCs are harmless. The truth is many of these OTC medications start out as prescription medications before going over the counter. The way that they work in our body is exactly the same as the prescription version and has the same potential for harmful side effects when not taken properly.
Some consumers believe that it is safe to take larger doses or to take the medication more frequently when the recommended dose doesn’t seem to work, instead of seeking a consultation with their pharmacist or physician. The product is often taken as long as symptoms persist. Active ingredients, warnings, and recommended dosing listed on the product label are often ignored due to the perceived safety of OTC medications. Many OTC medication labels will not provide dosing until your child is a certain age or weight since they are not approved or studied in younger children.
One of the most frequent complications faced when evaluating over-the-counter medication safety is the duplication of ingredients. The same active ingredient can often be found in prescription and OTC formulations. For example, acetaminophen is a common pain reliever and fever reducer that is often combined with other ingredients. It can be found in narcotic pain relievers, cough and cold medications, and sleep aids. Duplicating an ingredient such as this one can result in an accidental overdose with serious and dangerous consequences. Download a copy of A Parent’s Guide to Acetaminophen for Children.
Brand name manufacturers will list all the active ingredients in the product label on the side of the box, but, the ingredients may not always appear on the front label. It is essential to compare product labels when taking multiple OTC and prescription medications to prevent duplicating ingredients. Over-the-counter medication safety is crucial, as they can still have interactions with prescription medications so it is important to discuss with your pharmacist or physician.
Keep these tips in mind to ensure your family is taking medications safely:
- Read the product label. Know what you’re taking or giving to your child, how to take it and possible side effects.
- Try to avoid products with multiple ingredients or mixing of OTC products if possible.
- Discuss risks and benefits of OTC and prescription medications with your pharmacist and physician.
- Seek medical attention if symptoms persist or worsen.
- Like prescription medications, store OTC medications safely and out of the reach of children.