You cannot seem to shake that persistent migraine, so you reach for the ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet. Job stress is keeping you awake at night, so you resort to a sleep aid that promises eight hours of blissful rest. You may take these drugs without hesitation because you assume their availability on supermarket and drugstore shelves assures their safety.
The relatively low cost and convenience of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs encourage people to self-diagnose and self-treat without ever visiting a doctor for an evaluation and/or prescription. PR Newswire cites data that estimates 81 percent of adults in the United States turn to OTC medications to treat minor conditions. Indeed, the growing OTC market may reach over $491 billion by 2024.
However, OTC products are not necessarily risk-free. While our practice does not necessarily represent individuals harmed by taking these products, the unintended consequences of using OTC remedies have touched many of our clients and their families. Contact The Law Offices of George Salinas for further legal advice.
Consumers Assume That OTC Medications Are Safe
Merck Manual explains that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers these factors when determining whether a drug company should make a product available for sale without a prescription:
- Can the average consumer self-diagnose and treat the condition without consulting a healthcare professional?
- What consequences may occur from the use or misuse of the drug? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Is there a chance the drug is habit-forming?
- Does the package labeling provide adequate and easy-to-understand directions and warnings?
Consumers implicitly understand that OTC medications must meet certain federal safety standards. Because of this, in their rush to wellness, people may disregard the directions and warnings on labels, as well as underestimate the harmful effects of some OTC medications.
Watch for Side Effects, Allergies, and Interactions
FamilyDoctor.org explains that OTC medicines may have side effects that range from slight nausea to bleeding in your digestive tract. Some users may also experience itching, hives, or breathing problems, all of which may signal an allergic reaction. If you or a family member suffers from an unexpected side effect of or allergic reaction to an OTC medication, you should consult a medical professional immediately.
Consumers may find that their OTC medication interacts with a prescription or other OTC drug that they are taking. You must read labels to know the active ingredient in all your medicines. Brand names do not necessarily reveal the active ingredient, and consumers may inadvertently ingest more of a medication by combining products that have the same active ingredient.
You may also experience an adverse reaction if you take medications with active ingredients that work in opposition to each other or medications that affect the way your body processes other drugs. Combining medicine and “non-medicinal” products, like vitamins or herbal supplements, may trigger side effects or render the medication ineffective. Food may also impact your body’s ability to process OTC remedies, so you should heed directions that advise you whether to take a particular medicine before or after eating.
OTC Medications Pose a Risk of Abuse
People may underestimate the toxicity of OTC medications and take more than the recommended dose in a rush to end their pain. As USA Today notes, people can experience unintentional toxicity or health consequences from common OTC pain relievers.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that misuse of an OTC medication may occur if someone takes the medicine in a manner or dose inconsistent with labeled directions. Further, some OTC medications have active ingredients that may invite intentional misuse, as some people seek them out for recreational use. Many OTC cough suppressants, for example, contain an active ingredient that may trigger hallucinations in some people and cause addiction.
If You Are Taking an OTC Medication, Save That Drink for Another Time
While your body may tolerate a sleep aid, you may want to think twice before pairing that aid with a glass of wine. AAA explains that combining alcohol and any drug, including OTC drugs, may intensify the effects of both substances, leading to unpredictable consequences.
Your Use of OTC Products May Result in Drugged Driving
OTC medications may affect your capacity to drive safely. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration advises that if a label warns against operating heavy machinery, that means you must exercise caution when driving a motor vehicle, as well. Some products may have only short-term aftereffects, but that sleep remedy you take in the evening may have aftereffects that linger into the next morning. Do not get behind the wheel of your car if your OTC medication makes you drowsy or causes dizziness, blurred vision, or inability to focus.
Every state imposes criminal penalties on people who drive while intoxicated. Texas state law, for example, defines intoxication to mean impaired mental or physical abilities because of “alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance.” The Texas Department of Public Safety explains that this broad definition permits prosecutors to charge you with driving under the influence if you drive while impaired, including some OTC medicines.
How Do You Protect Yourself and Your Family?
Experts recommend practical steps that may help protect you and your family, including the following:
- Read the labels on all your OTC medications and follow dosing instructions, unless advised otherwise by your physician. Labels include important information about dosage and possible interactions with other medications. If you do not understand a warning or information about adverse side effects, talk to a doctor or pharmacist. Pharmacists are often willing to tell you about OTC products and how to use (and not use) them. KnowYourOTCs.org provides tips about how to read labels.
- If you take prescription medication, talk to your health professional before taking an OTC product at the same time. When asked by your doctor, honestly list all other products you consume. Even vitamins and herbal supplements may have undesirable interactions with OTC medications.
- FamilyDoctor.org advises that if you are dispensing OTC medication to your child, use a calibrated measuring cup, spoon, or syringe to ensure proper dosing.
At best, the responsible use of OTC products can help you relieve your symptoms in a convenient and cost-effective way. At worst, the ease of buying these products may lead you to underestimate their power. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency also offers resources for the safe use of OTC medications.