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Section II–Playing It Safe - Over-the-Counter Medication Safety

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section II–Playing It Safe

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Over-the-Counter Medication

Read warning sections on labels or look up the name of the medicine in
the Physician’s Desk Reference for Nonprescription Drugs. If you
are unsure about taking an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, check with
your health care provider or pharmacist. Find out if it is safe to combine
medicines (prescribed or OTC ones), to take alcohol with a medicine, or to
take OTC herbs, such as kava kava and St. John’s Wort with medicines
and/or alcohol.
Before you take a medicine, check the expiration date. Discard ones
that have expired.
Know what medications you are allergic to. Check the labels on all OTC
medicines to see if what you are allergic to is in them. Also, wear a
medical alert tag to let others know about allergies to medications as
well as medical conditions you have. Get a medical alert tag from a
drugstore or from MedicAlert Foundation International, 800.344.3226,
Do not take OTC medicines on a regular basis unless your health care
provider tells you to.
Don’t take someone else’s prescribed medicines. Don’t take OTC
medicines that you are not familiar with or are not in the original
product package. Don’t give your prescribed medicine to others.
Follow directions on the medicine’s label. Do not exceed the dose(s)
specified. For example, if you take 2 acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol)
tablets for a headache, don’t take 2 more in 2 hours if the label
instructs you to take 2 tablets every 4 to 6 hours. Also, don’t take
another pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) or a medicine with
acetaminophen, such as Nyquil at the same time or within the same 4 hours
of taking acetaminophen. This is too much medicine.
If you are under 19 years of age, do not take aspirin or any medicines
that contain salicylates, such as Pepto Bismol, due to its link to Reye’s
Syndrome. This is especially true when you have the flu or chicken pox.
If you order prescriptions and OTC medications online, make sure that
a registered pharmacist checks for drug interactions. Access for a location that the
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has given a verified Internet
Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPDS) seal of approval.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications

Problem OTC Medicine(s) and Supplies Problem Side Effects/Warnings

  • Antihistamine, such as Benadryl
    Allergy and Chlor-Trimeton

  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed

  • Combination of antihistamine and
    decongestant, such as Contac, Dimetapp

  • Antihistamines cause drowsiness,
    agitation, dry mouth, and/ or problems with urinating.

  • Don’t use with alcohol, when operating
    machines, or when driving. Don’t take with sleeping aids, antianxiety
    drugs, or antidepressants.

  • Don’t use a decongestant with alcohol
    or with a lot of caffeine.

and flu symptoms, nasal congestion
  • Saline nasal spray, such as Ocean

  • Cool mist vaporizer in room where you

  • Pain reliever, fever reducer (if
    needed). See “Pain relief” box below.

  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed

  • Combination pain reliever and
    decongestant, such as Tylenol Sinus

  • Safe to use saline nasal spray with
    other medications

  • Don’t combine a decongestant with
    alcohol or with a lot of caffeine.


  • Use a bulk-forming laxative, such as

  • Avoid stimulant-type ones, such as

  • Drink a lot of water with bulk-forming

  • Long-term use of stimulant-type can
    lead to dependence and to muscle weakness due to potassium loss.

  • Cough syrup with dextromethorphan,
    such as Robitussin-DM

  • May cause drowsiness. People with
    problems passing urine should avoid ones with diphenhydramine.

Cough with

  • Cough syrup or expectorant with guifenesin, such as Robitussin
  • Don’t take with an antihistamine.
& scrapes
  • Antiseptics, such as Betadine

  • Adhesive bandages, sterile gauze,
    first aid tape, scissors

  • Antibiotic cream or ointment, such as

  • May result in local allergic reaction

  • Antidiarrheal medicine, such as Kaopectate, Imodium A-D, Pepto
  • Pepto Bismol can cause black stools. Don’t give Pepto Bismol to
    anyone under 19 years of age because it contains salicylates, which
    have been linked to Reye’s Syndrome.
  • Thermometer (digital) and probe covers
    to measure temperature

  • Fever reducer, pain reliever. (See “Pain
    ” below)

  • Mercury thermometers are usually not allowed in dorm rooms.

, such as Athlete’s foot
  • Antifungal preparations, such as


  • See
    pain relievers listed under
    ,” below.

  • Excedrin Migraine is FDA approved for migraine headaches.

  • Excedrin Migraine has aspirin so should not be used by anyone
    under age 19 due to its link to Reye’s Syndrome.


  • Antacids, such as Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, Mylanta, etc.
  • Don’t use for more than 2 weeks without your health care
    provider’s okay.


  • Oatmeal soaps and bath products, such
    as Aveeno

  • Hydrocortisone cream, such as Cortaid

  • Hydrocortisone may result in a local allergic reaction. Don’t use
    on burns or infections or near the eyes.

Muscle aches/pains
  • Heating pad, hot water bottle, heat
    pack, or cold pack (for swelling)

  • Midol, etc.. Relief of minor aches and
    pains, temporary water weight gain, bloating, swelling, “full”
    feeling, cramps and emotional changes associated with menstrual

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, etc.). Ketoprofen (Actron,
    Orudis KT), and Naproxen (Aleve)

  • Midol, etc., can cause drowsiness.
    Don’t use with alcohol or sedatives.

  • See side effects/warnings box in “Pain
    ,” below.


Pain relievers
  • Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol (Does not reduce inflammation.)
  • Is gentle on stomach. Can result in liver problems in heavy
    alcohol users. Large doses or long-term use can cause liver or kidney
  • Ibuprofen, such as Advil and Motrin; Ketoprofen, such as
    Actron and Orudis KT; Naproxen, such as Aleve

Also reduce inflammation. (These are called nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

  • These can cause stomach upset and ulcers. Take with milk or food.
    Can make you more sensitive to the effects of the sun. Don’t use if
    you are allergic to aspirin. Don’t use if you have ever had ulcers,
    blood clotting problems, or kidney disease
  • Aspirin, such as Bayer or Bufferin
    {Note: Do not take aspirin
    or any medicine with salicylates if under age 19 due to its link to
    Reye’s Syndrome.}
  • Can cause stomach upset (which is made worse with alcohol). May
    contribute to stomach ulcers and bleeding. Avoid if you : Have an
    ulcer or asthma and/or are having surgery within 2 weeks. High doses
    or prolonged use can cause ringing in the ears.


  • Activated charcoal and syrup of
    ipecac are not advised for home use for swallowed poisons.

  • For advice, call the Poison Control Center at 800.222.1222 or your
    local number.

Sore throat
  • Throat anesthetic, such as Sucrets,
    Chloraseptic spray

  • Tongue depressor and flashlight to
    check for redness and pus deposits in throat

  • Do not use anesthetics, such as benzocaine, or others that end in
    “caine,” if allergic to them.

  • Tweezers
  • Sterilize tips with a lit match to prevent getting an infection.

and runny nose, postnasal drip
  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed
  • See Side Effects/Warnings for  in “Allergies” box above.

  • Cool baths or compresses with baking

  • Aloe vera (if not allergic to it)

  • Sunscreen to prevent sunburn. Use
    one with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or more.


and pain associated with dental work and dental
appliances, such as braces
  • Toothache anesthetic, such as Anbesol
  • Do not swallow. Do not use if you are allergic to topical
    anesthetics that end in “caine.”

Consult your health care provider about using herbal products,
nutritional supplements, etc. Harm can result from the product itself,
taking too much of it, and/or combining it with other products, including
OTC and prescription medicines. DO NOT take: Anabolic
steroids; muscle building products, Green Hornet, Liquid Speed, Snuffadelic;
or Adderrall (to pull an all nighter). These can cause major health


For Information, Contact:

Food and Drug Administration

National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
888.644.6226 •

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
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December 08, 2005