Literally thousands of drugs are available for purchase “Over-The-Counter” (OTC), which means that a person does not need a prescription to buy them. Just because OTC drugs can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription does not mean they are harmless. Many of these drugs have side effects or may negatively interact with other medications being taken. Always check with a pharmacist or physician about possible drug interactions before taking any over-the-counter medication.
A directory of common OTC ingredients, categorized by ailment, is listed below. When shopping for an OTC, compare these ingredients with the ingredients listed on the outside of the packages.
Allergies, Coughs, and Colds
Most OTCs for colds or allergies contain a combination of ingredients intended to treat multiple symptoms. Often, a person may need only one ingredient instead of a combination of ingredients. By taking a medication specific to a symptom, individuals can avoid side effects from medications they do not need. (Remember, medications often labeled for “colds” will not cure a coldthey only relieve symptoms.)
phenylpropanolamine (PPA)*, or other words ending with
“-ephrine” or “-edrine.”
AntihistamineChlorpheni-ramine or pyrilamine, or often words ending with “-amine.”
ExpectorantsGlyceryl guaiacolate and potassium iodide. The effectiveness of expectorants is unproved.
Cough suppressantDextro-methorphan hydrobromide.
More than 700 OTC laxative products are available to the American public. Only the most popular types are listed below. Some experts warn against using laxatives too often and recommend instead using natural remedies for constipation.
Stimulant/irritant type of laxatives (these are the least desirable)Bisacodyl, phenolphthalein, castor oil types.
Saline cathartics, (which remain in the intestines)Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), magnesium hydroxide, magnesium citrate.
Fecal softeners (can make elimination easier)Mineral oil, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, dioctyl calcium sulfosuccinate.
Bulk forming laxatives (promotes bowel movement)Psyllium seed, methylcellulose, sodium carboxymethyl-cellulose, and tragacanth.
Effervescent antacidsContain sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), potassium bicarbonate, and citric acid. Should be used sparingly and occasionally.
Aluminum hydroxideAn effective antacid that will not cause stomach acid rebound, however it may cause constipation.
Magnesium hydroxideOften combined with aluminum hydroxide, because this product is a known laxative and antacid.
SimethiconeAlso called polydimethylsiloxane. The FDA has ruled this product to be ineffective in relieving gas.
Pain, Fever, and Headache
AspirinAspirin is effective in reducing fever, pain, and inflammation. Also associated with increased stomach irritation, longer bleeding time, and “ringing in the ears.”
AcetaminophenNo usual side effects. Does not cause gastrointestinal bleeding sometimes associated with aspirin, however, taken in large doses or for extended periods, it can cause liver damage.
IbuprofenAlthough advertised as easier on the stomach than aspirin, the prescription formula of this product advises that it be taken with food.
Although many OTC ingredients are purported to alleviate the symptoms of diarrhea, the FDA has stated that none effectively relieve diarrhea symptoms. Alumina powder, attapulgite, belladonna alkaloids, bismuth salts, calcium carbonate, calcium hydroxide, sodium carboxymethylcellulose, charcoal, kaolin, pectin, salol, and zinc phenolsulfonate are among the most commonly used ingredients in antidiarrheal medication. Most bouts of diarrhea will spontaneously clear. Consult physician if high fever accompanies the diarrhea or if the diarrhea lasts for more than two days.