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Understanding Over-the-Counter Drug Facts Label

With a strained healthcare system, it's more important than ever to take care of your health at home. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication can provide relief for many common ailments, like minor aches, pains and symptoms of the common cold without having to see a doctor. But it’s important to remember that not all OTC medications are appropriate for each individual. They may treat similar symptoms, but they work differently in each person’s body.

In addition to choosing the right medication for you, it’s also important to follow the label to avoid accidentally taking too much. Common dosing (how much medicine to take) mistakes include taking the next dose too soon, doubling up and taking multiple medications with the same active ingredient, and taking more than the recommended dose at a single time.

Drugstore or pharmacy. Pharmacist, woman, man, child and girl with dog in protective masks to prevent the spread of disease. Buying medicaments during epidemic, quarantine, virus. Vector illustrationValerie Veine/Shutterstock

According to the CDC, adverse drug events (ADEs) occur from allergic reactions, side effects, overmedication, and medication errors and result in about 1.3 million emergency department visits and 350,000 hospitalizations each year. The CDC notes that 82 percent of American adults take at least one medication and 29 percent take five or more–ADEs may be preventable if more people read and understood Drug Facts label.

Here’s what you need to know about how to safely choose and use OTC medications.

What are OTC medicines?

OTC medications can help with a number of ailments including fever, headaches and body aches. Some common OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Acetaminophen is found in many OTC medications such as TYLENOL® and Dayquil®/Nyquil®, while NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin®), and naproxen sodium. OTC medicines are safe and effective if you follow the label, but any medicine can be harmful when used incorrectly.

The Importance of Reading the Label

While OTC medicines are readily available without a prescription at most grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores, it’s still extremely important to read and understand the Drug Facts label. It’s also crucial to understand the dosing, when and how often to take it and any health warnings associated with the medicine. Taking too much of a medicine or taking another dose too soon can cause harm to your body.

Don’t Exceed Maximum Daily Allowance

It’s imperative to read the label carefully to make sure you are not exceeding the maximum daily limit of any medicine. For example, severe liver damage can occur if you take more than 4,000 mg of acetaminophen in 24 hours—the max daily dose. A typical OTC pill has 500 mg of acetaminophen, meaning you should not take more than 8 pills in a 24 hourspan. Taking more can cause serious health problems.

Pharmaceutical vector concept: Female pharmacist wearing a face mask and giving drugs to male buyer in the drugstoreCreativa Images/Shutterstock

Don’t Mix Medicines Without Reading Ingredients First

You should not take multiple over-the-counter medicines at the same time if they contain the same active ingredient. Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in TYLENOL®, is found in over 600 other medicines. Read the label carefully and make sure you’re not accidentally doubling up on ingredients, which can lead to serious health problems.

Some people think taking more than one medicine with the same active ingredients equals faster relief, but that is a dangerous misconception. Mixing medicines with the same ingredients can increase your chance of harmful side effects and serious health problems, including liver failure. In particular, taking multiple NSAIDs, found in over 900 medications, increases the risk of stomach bleeding.

Prior or Underlying Health Conditions Can Affect OTC Medications

It’s also very important to keep in mind your current health conditions and understand how that may affect the medicine you are taking. For example, if you take aspirin to help protect against heart attack or stroke, taking ibuprofen may decrease that heart health benefit. Non-aspirin NSAIDS like ibuprofen or naproxen sodium may increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

If you have certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, a history of stomach bleeding, asthma, kidney disease, or liver disease, some OTC pain relievers may be more appropriate for you than others. Being over age 60 may also affect your pain reliever choice.

You can learn more about which OTC medications are right for you, based on your personal risk factors, through KnowYourOTCs.org. Please also consult with a medical professional if you have questions about your individual health needs.

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Here’s a general breakdown:

1. If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or have had a stroke
The American Heart Association identifies acetaminophen, the active ingredient in TYLENOL®, as a pain relief option to try first for patients with, or at high risk for, heart disease. Ask your doctor before using an NSAID like Motrin® (ibuprofen). If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or have had a stroke, ibuprofen and naproxen sodium may further increase these risks. If you take aspirin to help protect against heart attack or stroke, taking ibuprofen may decrease that heart health benefit.

2. If you have a history of stomach bleeding, stomach ulcers, or heartburn
Acetaminophen may be a more appropriate choice of pain reliever, as it does not irritate the stomach the way naproxen sodium or even ibuprofen can. Ask your doctor before using an NSAID. If you have had stomach ulcers or bleeding problems, or consume three or more alcoholic drinks per day, the chance of stomach bleeding is higher if you take an NSAID such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin.

3. If you have asthma
Acetaminophen may be a more appropriate choice of pain reliever for many people with asthma. Talk to your doctor before using an NSAID. If you have asthma that is sensitive to NSAIDs, taking an NSAID such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin could make your asthma worse.

4. If you have kidney disease
If you have kidney disease, the National Kidney Foundation identifies acetaminophen as an OTC pain reliever of choice for occasional use. Talk to your doctor before using an NSAID if you have kidney disease, because taking an NSAID may lead to reduced kidney function.

5. If you have liver disease or liver cirrhosis
Talk to your doctor before using acetaminophen if you have liver disease. Severe liver damage may occur if you take more than 4,000 mg in 24 hours, take with other drugs that contain the same active ingredient, or have three or more alcoholic drinks every day while using the medication. Talk to your doctor before using an NSAID if you have liver cirrhosis. Taking an NSAID such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin can increase your risk of further liver damage, reduced kidney function, and stomach bleeding.

Age May Also Affect OTC Medications

If you are 60 or older, acetaminophen may be a more appropriate pain reliever choice, depending on your health history and other medications. Ask your doctor before using an NSAID. If you are age 60 or older, taking an NSAID such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin could increase the change of stomach bleeding.

OTC Medicines Can Support Your Health for any Lifestyle, But Use Carefully

OTC medications can provide relief for minor ailments like aches, pains and common cold, when used appropriately. For more information on how to safely choose and use OTC medications, visit GetReliefResponsibly.com

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