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How to Safely Choose OTC Medicines

Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and pain relievers, laxatives, and headache remedies may treat different conditions, but they all have one thing in common. They’re serious medicines that need to be taken with care.

OTC medicines are real medicines and can have side effects and risks, even though you don’t need a prescription to buy them. Generally, they are safe when taken exactly as directed on the label. But they can be dangerous if the wrong dosage is taken or the right amount is taken too often. Or if they interact with other medicines you take.

When taking OTCs, always read the label. This will help you decide if you have picked the right product for your symptoms. By reading the label, you will find the dosing instructions and read about any warnings that may apply to you, like not to take a medicine if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson disease, or if you are pregnant.

The label will tell you what to avoid while taking the medicine. Like prescription medicines, some OTC medicines can cause side effects or reactions. Read the label to see what to stay away from while you’re taking an OTC medicine.

Take medicine exactly as stated on the label. If that dosage or amount doesn't help your symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist. If you still have symptoms after the number of days advised on the bottle or if your symptoms get worse, contact your healthcare provider.

Use extra caution when taking more than 1 medicine at a time.

Some prescription medicines contain the same ingredients as OTCs. Combining 2 or more of these medicines would result in an overdose.

If, for instance, you take a prescription medicine that contains acetaminophen, and then take an OTC form of acetaminophen, you could risk developing liver failure.

Always read and follow the directions on OTC medicines. Store all your medicines in a cool dry place, and if possible in their original containers. When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Diane Horowitz MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.