Over-the-counter medicines
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Over-the-counter medicines

Alternative Names

Medications to have at home

Information

For common minor symptoms and illnesses, you can buy over-the-counter medicines at a store without a prescription from your health care provider.

Important tips for using over-the-counter medications:

  • Always follow the printed directions and warnings. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor before starting a new over-the-counter drug.
  • Know what you are taking. Always look at the list of ingredients. Select products with the fewest number of ingredients needed to treat your symptoms.
  • All medications become less effective (expire) over time and should be replaced. Check the expiration date before using any product.
  • Store medicines in a cool, dry area. The heat from kitchens and the moisture from bathrooms decrease the effectiveness of medications.
  • Store all medications out of the reach of children. See: Storing medicine safely

Women should consult their doctor before taking over-the-counter medicines while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Any drug or medicine may have a different effect in children and older adults. People who are in these age groups should take special care when taking over-the-counter medicines.

Below are some examples of over-the-counter medicines for common symptoms. This list does not include every medicine. It also does not mean that some of the brands listed are better than others. Many of these medicines have less expensive store brands.

Always call your health care provider first if:

  • Your symptoms are severe
  • You are not sure what is wrong with you
  • You have a long-term (chronic) medical condition or you are taking other prescription medications

ACHES, PAINS, AND HEADACHES

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with your headache, arthritis pain, sprains, and other minor joint and muscle problems.

  • Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) can be used first. Do not take more than 4 grams (4,000 mg) on any one day.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). You can buy some NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, without a prescription.

Both NSAIDs and acetaminophen can cause serious side effects when taken in high doses or for a long time. If you are taking pain relievers several days a week, tell your doctor. You may need to be watched for side effects.

People who need to take pain medications for headaches 3 or more days a week may get rebound headaches. See: Headache for more information about headaches and when to call your doctor.

FEVER

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help reduce fever in children and adults.

  • Take acetaminophen every 4 - 6 hours. It works by turning down the brain's thermostat.
  • Take ibuprofen every 6 - 8 hours. DO NOT use ibuprofen in children younger than 6 months. Know how much you or your child weighs before giving ibuprofen.

Aspirin works very well for treating fever in adults. DO NOT give aspirin to a child unless your child's doctor tells you to give it.

See: Fever to learn how to treat a fever and when to call the doctor.

COLD, SORE THROAT, COUGH

Over-the-counter cold remedies may help ease your symptoms. They won't shorten the length of a cold, but they can help you feel better.

NOTE: Medical experts do not recommend using cough and cold drugs in children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cold medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely will not work in children, and they may have serious side effects.

Cough medicines include:

  • Guaifenesin: This medicine helps break up mucus. Drink lots of fluids if you take this medicine.
  • Menthol throat lozenges: Halls, Robitussin, Vicks
  • Liquid cough suppressants with dextromethorphan: Benylin, Delsym, Robitussin DM, Simply Cough, Vicks 44, and store brands

Decongestant pills and liquids help clear a runny nose and relieve postnasal drip:

  • Check with your doctor before taking decongestants if you have high blood pressure or prostate problems.
  • Oral decongestants: pseudoephedrine (Contact Non-Drowsy, Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)

Nasal spray decongestants may also help with a runny nose:

  • Decongestant nasal sprays: oxymetazoline (Afrin, Neo-Synephrine Nighttime, Sinex Spray) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine, Sinex Capsules)
  • Decongestant nasal sprays may work more quickly, but they can have a rebound effect if you use them for more than 3 - 5 days. Your symptoms may get worse if you keep using these sprays.

Starting to take zinc supplements within 24 hours after cold symptoms begin may shorten the duration of cold symptoms and make the symptoms less severe.

Sore throat may be treated with:

  • Sprays that numb the pain for a short time: dyclonine (Cepacol), phenol (Chloraseptic)
  • Painkillers: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve)
  • Sucking on hard candies or throat lozenges can be very soothing. Be careful in young children because of the choking risk.

ALLERGIES

Antihistamine pills and liquids work well for treating allergy symptoms.

  • Some antihistamines can cause sleepiness. These include: dipenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimetron), brompheniramine (Dimetapp), or clemastine (Tavist). Talk to your doctor before giving these medicines to a child, because they can affect learning. In adults, they may also reduce alertness enough to impair driving.
  • Newer antihistamines cause little or no sleepiness. Some are available over the counter. These medications include loratadine (Alavert, Claritin, Dimetapp ND), fexofenadine (Allegra), and cetirizine (Zyrtec).

You can also try:

  • Eye drops that soothe or moisten
  • Preventive nasal spray: cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom)

DIARRHEA

Be careful when taking over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicines such as loperamide (Imodium). Talk to your doctor first. These drugs can worsen diarrhea that is caused by infections.

Medicines that contain bismuth (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol) may be taken for mild diarrhea. Rehydration fluids you can buy at a drugstore (Enfalyte or Pedialyte) may be used for moderate and severe diarrhea.

NAUSEA AND VOMITING

Emetrol and Pepto-Bismol may relieve mild nausea and vomiting. Rehydration fluids you can buy at a drugstore (Enfalyte or Pedialyte) may help replace fluids. See: Nausea and vomiting for more information and when to call the doctor.

You can help motion sickness with dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or meclizine (Bonine, Antivert, Postafen, and Sea Legs).

SKIN RASHES AND ITCHING

Antihistamines taken by mouth may help with itching or if you have allergies. Often you can buy them without a prescription.

Hydrocortisone cream (Cortaid, Cortizone 10) may work for mild rashes. See: Rashes

Diaper rashes caused by yeast may be treated with topical antifungal skin creams and ointments, such as nystatin, miconazole, clotrimazole, and ketaconazole.

References

Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Feb 16;2:CD001364.

Simasek M, Blandino DA. Treatment of the common cold. Am Fam Physician. Feb 2007;75(4):515-520.

Semrad CE, Powell DW. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 143.

Boes CJ, Capobianco DJ, Cutrer FM, et al. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 73.

Atopic dermatitis. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 5.


Review Date: 3/26/2011
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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