Understanding Over-the-Counter Medications

July 14, 2022
Understanding Over-the-Counter Medications


Millions of Americans rely on over-the-counter (OTC) medications for chronic pain relief. 

While most nonprescription drugs are safe and effective, medical experts warn that prolonged use could have adverse effects overtime. 

To help you stay informed, BayCare medical experts Dr. Laura Arline, chief quality officer, and Mike Magee, chief pharmacy officer, provide insights into OTC medications and what you need to consider before taking them. 

Commonly Used Over-the-Counter Medications 

OTC medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, help provide relief pain or discomfort for a variety of problems including headaches, colds, tooth aches, arthritis and muscle strains. 

Magee says some common OTC medications, which are widely available at stores, include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). OTC medications can also include topical drugs that apply directly to your skin like creams, gels, sprays or patches. These OTC medications, which help reduce pain and inflammation, are sold directly to people without a prescription.  

Read the Labels 

According to Magee, it’s always important to carefully read and understand the information on the medication labels before taking them. “Don’t ignore the labels when buying or taking an over-the-counter medication,” says Magee. “Always pay attention to the active ingredients, purpose, uses, warnings and directions. If you still have questions, talk to a pharmacist or your doctor.” 

Potential Risks 

When it comes to medications, more does not necessarily mean better outcomes. Magee says, you should never misuse OTC medicines by taking them longer, more frequently, or in higher doses than the label recommends. If your symptoms persist, you should see a doctor.

According to Dr. Arline, prolonged use of those medications can have adverse effects, may interact with diet or alcohol use, and could impact health conditions such as diabetes, blood pressure, and kidney or liver disease. 

“Overusing acetaminophen or combining it with alcohol can cause liver or kidney issues,” says Dr. Arline. “Ibuprofen and other related anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen can trigger stomach upset, skin reactions and kidney issues, and increase the risk for bleeding.” 

Try Alternative Options 

If you have chronic pain such as headaches or arthritis, you should consider alternative options by modifying daily lifestyle habits. Dr. Arline says exercise, physical therapy, massages, a healthy diet, relaxation techniques, hydration and improved sleep can help reduce pain. 

“For example, if you’re experiencing headaches, take a walk outside or increase your water intake instead of taking an OTC medication. You may notice an improvement,” says Dr. Arline. “These alternative options can be more effective and have no side effects.” 

If you have questions, you can check with your physician who may recommend additional alternatives to manage chronic pain.

Speak to a Doctor

If your symptoms are severe or persist after completing the recommended length of time allotted on the OTC medicine label, you should see a doctor. Additionally, if you’re taking OTC medications and experience side effects such as vision problems, stomach upset, confusion or rash, you should call a health care provider. 

To schedule an appointment with a BayCare physician, visit BayCareMedicalGroup.org.


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