By Dr. Joseph Mercola
with Rachael Droege
Each year Americans buy about 5 billion over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in the hopes of treating routine medical problems. Many believe OTC drugs do not pose the same risks as prescription drugs and are completely safe to use, as they are so readily available.
Unfortunately, the ease with which OTC drugs can be obtained presents a false sense of security. As with all drugs, OTC drugs are simply covering up symptoms and are not addressing the underlying cause of the symptoms. Further, even though they’re available without a prescription, they are still drugs, and many contain powerful ingredients. Take a look at the following misconceptions that are floating around to get an idea of the potential risks of relying on OTC drugs, and check out my Total Health Program to learn how to prevent many of the illnesses that drive you to use these drugs in the first place.
Myth 1: OTC Drugs are Safer Than Prescription Drugs
Over-the-counter drugs can have serious side effects and can even result in death if taken incorrectly. Some 56,000 people end up in the emergency room each year from misuse of acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, alone. As with prescription drugs, OTC drugs can interact with foods, other medications, and existing medical conditions and cause some major problems.
Myth 2: It Takes a Whole Bottle to Overdose
It’s possible to overdose without even knowing you took too much. For instance, according to government estimates about 100 people die each year after unintentionally taking too much acetaminophen (an overdose of the drug, which includes Tylenol, can poison the liver).
One of the biggest problems is that many OTC medicines sold for different uses have the same active ingredient. So someone who takes a cold remedy along with a headache remedy or prescription pain reliever may be inadvertently receiving three or four times the safe level. You should avoid taking multiple drugs with the same active ingredient at the same time.
Along with acetaminophen, another group of OTC drugs to watch out for are painkillers called NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and ketoprofen. Overdosing on these widely available drugs can cause stomach bleeding and kidney problems.
Myth 3: Any Potential Drug Interactions Will be Listed on the Label
While OTC drug labels will include some of the potentially harmful interactions on the label, you cannot rely on them to cover every one (and many people do not take the time to read the label anyway). Certain foods, drugs, herbs, vitamins and your own existing medical conditions could potentially create a harmful reaction. The best way to find out about these potential interactions would be to talk to a doctor or pharmacist, but since many OTC drugs are sold in grocery stores, convenient stores--even gas stations--there isn’t always a knowledgeable person available to answer your questions.
There are many interactions that can occur and many are unexpected. For instance, if you have high blood pressure you could have an adverse reaction if you take a nasal decongestant.
Myth 4: OTC Drugs are Cheaper Than Prescription Drugs
OTC medications are not always cheap. You may find that what you think is a simple OTC remedy is costing you more than some prescription drugs, and many cost more than the nutritional interventions you could take to address the underlying problems.
Myth 5: OTC Drugs Have Fewer Side Effects Than Prescription Drugs
All drugs carry the risk of side effects. Whether they’re prescribed by a doctor or bought over-the-counter does not make a difference in this risk.
Myth 6: It’s Safe to Use OTC Drugs With Vitamins or Other Nutritional Supplements
This is a major issue, as most don’t realize that vitamins and herbs can interact with medications just as medications can interact with each other. Interactions could cause unexpected side effects, could alter the effectiveness of the drug or vitamin making them more or less powerful, or could even worsen the condition you are trying to treat.
Myth 7: I Only Need to Look at the Active Ingredient on the Label
Inactive ingredients, which are labeled "inactive" by the FDA because they presumably have no effect on the body, can indeed be problematic. Many OTC medications contain additives that may surprise you, such as artificial dyes, caffeine and sweeteners like aspartame. You will want to be sure to read the inactive ingredients on the label along with the active ingredient section to be sure you are aware of exactly what you are consuming.Dr. Mercola is the founder of the world’s most visited natural health web site, Mercola.com. You can learn the hazardous side effects of OTC Remedies by getting a FREE copy of his latest special report The Dangers of Over the Counter Remedies by going to his Report Page.