When Medicine Hurts More Than It Helps

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is meant to make you feel better. But sometimes, due to adverse effects or drug interactions, it may make your symptoms worse.

According to the FDA, drug interactions must be carefully considered whenever self-treating symptoms. Drug-condition interactions occur whenever someone with a preexisting condition takes a medication without considering or understanding the effects of a medicine’s specific ingredients. America’s Medicine Cabinet reports that millions of Americans are injured by medication errors every year, costing them billions in doctor visits and hospitalizations.

The FDA suggests that each person who uses an OTC medicine should check the label regularly—even if they have been taking it for years. Drug labels are subject to change as new information becomes available, and that label can indicate updates to certain warnings and usage recommendations to support consumer safety. Additionally, the FDA suggests that each consumer carefully read the Warnings section of the Drug Fact label. This section informs consumers about how the medicine may make them feel, when to stop using it, and when to check with a doctor before using (or to avoid using at all).

Despite the emphasis from the medical world to carefully read drug fact labels, the NY Times recently reported that only 1 in 10 Americans says they actually take the time to check the label. That means that 90 percent of the population continues to ingest potent medicines without understanding the potential adverse effects.

Certain ingredients are more likely to cause a reaction than others. At the same time, certain preexisting conditions can equate to a higher risk for adverse or unfortunate reactions to ordinary OTC medicine. Young children, older adults, and people taking more than one type of medicine have a higher risk of adverse reactions to OTC medicines.

FamilyDoctor.org says the following conditions are also considered to have a higher risk when using OTCs:

  •  Asthma
  •  Bleeding disorders
  •  Blood clotting disorders
  •  Breathing problems
  •  Diabetes
  •  Enlarged prostate gland
  •  Epilepsy
  •  Glaucoma
  •  Gout
  •  Heart disease
  •  High blood pressure
  •  Immune system problems
  •  Kidney problems
  •  Liver problems
  •  Parkinson’s disease
  •  Psychiatric problems
  •  Thyroid problems

In order to identify an allergy, intolerance or adverse reaction to certain OTC ingredients, people must carefully monitor their body while taking the medication. Medical experts suggest closely monitoring your body’s symptoms after taking OTC medicine to ensure that the symptoms do not worsen and no new symptoms are developing. Common side effects or symptoms associated with adverse reactions are: nausea, hives, rash, flushing, redness, itchiness and fatigue (among others).

If you think your new symptoms are being caused by your OTC medicine, it could be due to side effects, drug-drug interaction, drug-condition interaction or an allergic reaction.

Here are some tips from the FDA about using OTC drugs:

  • Keep records of all the medications you take, whether prescriptions or OTC, as well as any vitamins or supplements. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist are aware, so they can spot potential drug interactions.
  • Don’t forget that many common personal care items contain drug-based ingredients, such as fluoride and antibiotics. Read labels carefully and look for warnings on things like toothpaste and mouthwash. The FDA classifies antiperspirants as OTC drugs because they usually contain aluminum.
  • When taking cough syrups or other liquid medications, use the measuring tool that comes with the drug to make sure you’re taking the right dose.
  • Don’t crush or split up tablets unless directed by a doctor. This could affect how your body absorbs the medicine and may impact its effectiveness.

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Terms To Know

Side Effects

A side effect caused by your OTC medicine may be  unpleasant, but is truly possible any time you take an over-the-counter medicine. Side effects can range in severity, from mild reactions such as sleepiness, or more severe such as bleeding, dizziness or nausea. Side effects are not drug allergies and are much more common than allergic reactions to drugs.

Drug-drug interaction

When different medicines are combined or used together, there is an increased possibility of negative reactions in the body. It is especially important to understand recommended dosages, similar ingredients, and warnings. A doctor should be consulted when taking a prescription and OTC medicine together.

Allergic reaction 

Some may assume side effects are drug allergies or allergic reactions, but this is not the case. Drug allergies are uncommon, but still quite possible. Reactions could include itching, hives and breathing problems. An allergic reaction or drug allergy is an individual’s intolerance to certain ingredients or chemicals in a drug.