10 tips for smart over-the-counter (OTC) medicine use
The more than 300,000 OTC medicines that you can buy without a prescription all have one thing in common: they are serious medicines that need to be taken with care. That’s why it’s important to Be MedWise every time you buy and use an OTC drug. Here are 10 simple ways to get the most from your OTC medicines:
- Always start by reading the label–all of it.
Reading the label will help you decide if you have selected the right product for your symptoms, and for you to understand the dosing instructions and be aware of any warning that may apply to you.
- Look for an OTC medicine that will treat only the symptoms you have.
Some products are for one symptom (i.e., cough medicine) and some are for multiple symptoms (i.e., cold medicines that can treat headache, stuffy nose and cough). “More” does not necessarily mean better if the medicine is treating conditions you don’t have. Select a medicine that treats your specific symptoms.
- Know what to avoid while taking an OTC medicine.
Like prescription medicines, all OTC drugs can cause side effects or reactions. Read the label to see what to avoid while you are taking an OTC drug.
- When in doubt, ask before you buy or use an OTC medicine.
Taking an OTC medicine safely is too important for guesswork. If you have questions, ask your pharmacist or doctor.
- Take the medicine EXACTLY as stated on the label.
When it comes to OTC medicines, more is not better! Taking too much of a nonprescription medicine can be harmful. Only take the recommended amount and at the exact intervals stated on the label.
- Use extra caution when taking more than one OTC drug product at a time.
Many OTC medicines contain the same active ingredients, (i.e., the same pain reliever you take for a backache may also be in cold medicine), which means you may be getting more than the recommended dose without even knowing it. Always compare active ingredients before taking more than one OTC medicine at the same time.
- Don’t combine prescription medicines and OTC drugs without talking to a healthcare professional first.
Sometimes combining drugs can cause adverse reactions or one drug can interfere with the other drug’s effectiveness. Always ask your doctor or pharmacist to play it safe.
- Keep a list of all the OTC medicines, prescription drugs, dietary supplements and herbal remedies you take, listing the active ingredient(s), and reason for taking each one. Share this list with your healthcare providers at each visit so they can check for any possible drug interactions or side effects. In case of an accident or emergency, make sure a loved one has an up-to-date copy of your medicine list too.
- Always give infants and children OTC medicines that are specifically indicated for their age and weight.
Unless labeled otherwise, adult-strength products should not be given to children under age 12; doing so could result in accidental overdosing. Never cut adult tablets in half or estimate a child’s dose of an adult-strength liquid product. When giving pediatric liquid OTC medicines to children, always use the calibrated measuring cup or dosing syringe that is provided with the medicine. Do not use a kitchen spoon, which come in many different sizes and measures and are never reliable for dosing medicines.
- Don’t use OTC medicines after their expiration date.
Dispose of all medicines promptly and safely after their expiration date and be careful not to throw them away where children or pets may find them.
Learn more about the safe use of OTC medicines from BeMedWise members and stakeholders
- Over-the-Counter Medicine Safety—an educational toolkit for students, teachers, parents and community leaders from Scholastic and the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
- Use Over-the-Counter Medicines Wisely—NCPIE brochure in English or Spanish
- A parent’s guide for OTC medicine use (CHPA Educational Foundation)
- Medicines in My Home—a multimedia educational program from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).