As cold and flu season gears up around the country, Americans are flocking to their local pharmacies to find relief. Unfortunately, some hold the belief that if something is available without a prescription, it’s basically harmless. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A fact sheet from Cigna Health lists aspirin as one of the top five drugs responsible for accidental poisoning. Furthermore, some statistics say that over-the-counter (OTC) drugs cause as many as 15,000 deaths throughout North America each year.
Don’t Ignore the Dosage Information
One of the easiest ways to take OTC drugs safely is to read the label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has standardized labels so it’s easy to spot the proper dosages for medications, as well as any potential side effects. These facts are not something to overlook. A Canadian publication called Common Ground even goes as far as to clarify that the only difference between a drug that’s therapeutic and one that’s poison is the dosage amount.
Know the Potential Effects
It’s widely known that citrus fruits contain high levels of Vitamin C, which can in turn boost the immune system. However, researchers from the University of Western Ontario found that the combination of grapefruit and a common ingredient in OTC cough and cold medicines can cause heart arrhythmias and breathing problems, among other side effects. Specifically, the ingredient is called dextromethorpan, and may be abbreviated as DM or DXM in ingredient lists.
Also, the FDA recently warned that hundreds of medications contain another common ingredient, acetaminophen, and overdoses can cause liver failure. Taking the substance in accordance with the label means that no one should take more than 3,000 milligrams per day. However, since so many medications contain the ingredient, people may inadvertently be taking a lot more than they realize.
Before taking medicine, verify that nothing else you’ve also consumed recently could cause an interaction. Also, make note of how many doses you take in a day to keep track of when you’re reaching the recommended limit.
More is Not Necessarily Better
Cold and flu season frequently causes sufferers to experience headaches and sore muscles too. When dealing with pain, many people think that more medicine equals more relief. In reality, this is usually not the case. The National Consumers League says that a third of all people who take OTC medications consume more than the dosage recommended on the packaging, because they think it’ll bring faster, or more thorough relief. Through this practice, it’s even easier to unknowingly ingest too much of an active ingredient.
Education is as Nearby as the Pharmacy
Fortunately, even if all these warnings are causing your head to spin, it’s not hard to stay informed about how to take OTC drugs in a way that’s both safe and effective. Pharmacists receive a university-level education and can point consumers in the right direction while they’re sorting through the various options for cold and flu medications, or pain relievers. In some areas of Europe, pharmacists are particularly seen as healthcare partners. They often post a sign in drugstore windows, letting passersby know that they’re available for a free consultation. As a result, people who are struggling with symptoms of illness can get trustworthy advice without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment.
Whether you’re trying to keep a family member comfortable when they’re sick, or studying for a pharmacology-related career, it’s crucial to realize that although OTC drugs are easy to access, they’re not free of potential dangers. By practicing personal awareness and educating others, you can help safe practices become more widespread.
Tasha Matsumoto is an avid health blogger. If you’re excited about the future of pharmacy and are considering it as a career, several schools offer degrees in the field, including University of Florida and Creighton University.