Medications include Over-The-Counter medications (OTC) as well as prescription medications. People often think medications that do not require a doctor’s prescription cannot be harmful. This is not true! Over-the-counter medications also can create problems if used improperly or used at the same time as prescription medications.
Because over-the-counter medications are used so frequently and can have harmful effects, it is important to know the differences between prescription and over-the-counter medications.
- Require a written order or prescription from a physician, dentist, or nurse practitioner. This prescription authorizes a pharmacist to dispense a particular medication.
- Are prescribed for the treatment of a specific medical problem.
- Are usually more powerful and have more side effects than over-the-counter medications.
Prescription medications include important label instructions and must be followed carefully to ensure safe and effective use. Sometimes, however, the labels can be confusing because instructions are not clear. For example:
- Take as directed. (What were the directions?)
- Take 4 times a day. (Around the clock or just during waking hours?)
- Take as needed. (What determines need?)
- Take before bedtime. (Immediately before sleeping or 1-2 hours before?)
For your health and well-being, you need to know exactly what the directions on your medication labels mean. Do not be satisfied with vague instructions. Your health care provider, doctor, or pharmacist can advise you on the best time and the best way to take medication so you get the most benefit.
- Can be bought without a prescription.
- Are intended for relief of minor ailments.
- Are considered safe if warnings and directions are followed.
- Can be harmful if misused.
Over-the-counter medications differ from prescription medications in that the particular ingredient, or mix of ingredients, and the recommended doses are considered relatively safe and problems are relatively unlikely. However, many over-the-counter medications contain strong agents. If taken in large quantities, some over-the-counter medications would be equal in strength to medications normally available only by prescription.
In What Ways Can Over-the-Counter Medications be Harmful?
OTC medications can change the effect of prescribed medications. Over-the-counter medications can affect the action of prescribed medications. For example, making them stronger or less effective. Be sure to ask your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medication at the same time as prescribed medication.
OTC medications can mask symptoms of disease. Over-the-counter medications, especially when taken regularly, can reduce or completely dispel symptoms that warn of a more serious medical problem. For example, antacids taken for “upset stomach” may cover symptoms of ulcer disease, so diagnosis and treatment may be delayed.
OTC medications can lead to overdose. An over-the-counter medication, when taken in excess or combined with prescribed medication, may lead to symptoms of drug overdose. Once again, be sure to consult with a doctor or pharmacist before combining both OTC and prescribed medications.
OTC medications can be harmful. If misused, even common over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, vitamins, or cold remedies can be harmful. Examples are: Laxatives. Habitual use of laxatives and enemas can lead to loss of normal bowel function. Antacids. May produce magnesium toxicity in patients with renal (kidney) problems or may contribute sodium to the diet (examples: Alka Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer).
Two Important Suggestions Regarding OTC Medication Use
- Be informed consumers. It is important to be as
informed about the medications we take as we are about other
products we purchase (such as home appliances or video games).
Whenever using over-the-counter medication:
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist about drug interactions
- Read labels carefully
- Only take the directed dosage
- Use medications responsibly. In order to avoid unnecessary medical problems, it is important we give over-the-counter medications the same care and respect given to prescription medications (Please see Fact Sheet #SS-113 for more information about OTC medications).