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Over-The-Counter Drugs


Over-the-counter drugs should be treated with the same respect as prescription drugs. They can help, but they can also cause harm.

Over-the-counter drugs are medications which are considered to be safe and effective without the help of a doctor. Many over-the-counter drugs started as prescription drugs.

The FDA determines whether a drug can be available to the public over-the-counter instead of by prescription by considering:

  • Can people self-diagnose the problem?
  • Can people figure out the appropriate treatment and how to use the drug?
  • Is there substantial risk for abuse or addiction.

When choosing an over-the-counter drug: According to Consumer Reports On Health:

  • Look at active ingredients, not brand names.
  • Do not take more than one drug with the same active ingredient.
  • Avoid multisymptom remedies
  • Check for warnings and side effects
  • Stick to recommended doses
  • Check expiration dates.
  • We add: Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure it does not interfere with any of the other drugs you are taking.

Before taking an over-the-counter drug

Check with your doctor or other health care provider, or at least with a pharmacist: 

  • Remind him or her about your health condition in case there is a negative reaction between the drug and the condition(s).
  • Check to be sure there is no negative interaction between the drug you are considering and any drug you take or took recently.
  • If you underwent any treatment recently, remind  your doctor or pharmacist about the treatment in case there are lingering effects that would suggest you not take the drug.
  • Learn about the drug so you can use it and store it correctly. To find information about  over-the-counter drugs, use the same process as with prescription drugs. To learn how, click here.

Think about the cost. Over-the-counter drugs are generally not covered by health insurance.

NOTE: Consider purchasing single-ingredient instead of multiple ingredient over-the-counter drugs. Single ingredient drugs may be less expensive on your pocketbook and easier on your body.

Paying For Over-The-Counter Drugs

  • Over-the-counter drugs are generally not covered by insurance.
  • Check with your pharmacist or health care provider to see if there are less expensive generic alternatives among over-the-counter drugs.
  • If you have drug coverage, consider a prescription medicine. Although a prescribed medicine may be more expensive, it may be less expensive even if you pay a co-pay to use a prescribed medicine covered by your insurance. At least discuss with your doctor whether there is a medication which requires a prescription which does the same thing (and is on your company's formulary if there is one).

Once you decide to take an over-the-counter drug

  • Inform both your doctor or other health care provider and your pharmacist. 
    • Your doctor or other health care provider should know about all drugs you take
    • If you also inform your pharmacist, he or she can alert you if there is a recall (in addition to tracking your medications and preventing negative interactions).
  • Follow the directions on the label. 
    • Do not discontinue a drug before the date stated on the label. 
    • Do not use a drug longer than the directions indicate.
  • Measure liquid drugs exactly.  
    • Do not "swig" an over the counter liquid from the bottle instead of measuring the exact dosage. 
    • Do not take more of the product than noted in the label instructions.
  • Store the product as noted on the label.
  • If you hear about a recall of the drug, check to find out if you are taking one of the batch that is recalled. You can check the following resources:
  • Consider signing up for e-mail alerts about drug recalls at offsite link
  • Keep your doctor and pharmacist up-to-date on all the over-the-counter drugs and supplements you take, as well as your continuing symptoms.

NOTE: Pharmaceutical chains have many rebate programs on many types of products including over-the-counter drugs. You can usually sign up on a pharmacy's web site. For instance, see: CVS: offsite link,  Rite-Aid: offsite link,  Walgreens: offsite link

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