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Categories > Medication Management > Herbal remedies

A spoonful of caution

These days, picking up a remedy to banish your headache or relieve mild aches and pains is no more difficult than making a stop at your local grocery store. But while over-the-counter (OTC) drugs—medications that don’t need prescriptions—can be convenient, they’re serious medicines that can cause dangerous side effects if used improperly.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about taking OTC drugs safely:

What kind of side effects can an OTC drug cause?

Breathing problems, facial swelling, bleeding and hives require immediate medical attention. Other side effects range from minor problems such as headache and dry mouth to more worrisome complaints, including anxiety, sleeplessness, stomach pain, heartburn, constipation and dizziness. Call your healthcare provider right away if you develop problems.

Who’s at risk of side effects from OTC drugs?

Anyone can experience unwanted side effects from OTC drugs, but those most at risk include older adults; people with chronic health problems; and people who take other prescription drugs or OTC medications, including herbal products. Children, pregnant women, breastfeeding women and women trying to get pregnant are also more likely to have problems.

What kinds of problems do older adults have?

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (in Motrin and Advil) and naproxen sodium (in Aleve) can increase your risk for kidney disease and gastrointestinal bleeding. The decongestant pseudoephedrine used in cold and allergy medicines can increase blood pressure in your eyes and cause glaucoma. An OTC drug taken with prescription drugs such as beta-blockers, antidepressants and insulin can cause negative interactions. For example, taking aspirin if you’re on blood-thinning medication can lead to serious bleeding. What’s more, older adults may no longer metabolize drugs efficiently and may need smaller doses than what the label recommends.

How can taking two OTC medications at the same time hurt?

You may be getting too much of a good thing, which can damage your body’s organs. For instance, acetaminophen, found in the pain reliever Tylenol, is also used in some cold and flu medications. Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

For how long can I safely take an OTC pain reliever?

Don’t use OTC painkillers to manage pain for more than 10 days or to manage fever for more than three days, unless instructed by your healthcare provider.

Can foods or beverages interact with OTC drugs?

Yes. Foods and beverages can change the way a drug acts in your body. Drinking grapefruit juice while taking medication can cause higher levels of the drug to remain in your bloodstream. And consuming too much milk, yogurt and cheese can hinder the absorption of anti-biotics. Important: Avoid OTC drugs if you drink three or more alcoholic beverages a day.

To be safe, read the drug’s package instructions thoroughly and ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist about precautions you may need to take while using OTC medication.