Cough. Fever. Congestion. Sore throat. Headache. Sneeze. Over the past 17 years as a family physician, I’ve seen thousands of patients with typical cold and flu symptoms at this time of year – and they all need relief. A estimated 7 out of 10 consumers turn to over-the-counter medications for help, but many of them don’t realize that their over-the-counter medications could put them at risk for more serious health complications.
When a cold or flu strikes, patients may turn to more than one over-the-counter medication for symptom relief without recognizing that many cough and cold medicines contain more than one active ingredient – and often include a pain relieving ingredient such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.
I advise my patients to read and follow the Drug Facts label on the over-the-counter cold and flu medications they choose, and to be aware of all active ingredients, instructions, and warnings to avoid side effects. or undesirable complications. For example, taking more than one medicine containing acetaminophen at a time can cause an overdose that can damage your liver. And taking a medicine that contains a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium can increase your risk of serious stomach bleeding if you have certain medical conditions or are taking certain medications.
This advice also applies to over-the-counter pain relievers. Many of my patients use them during cough and cold season, whether to treat a headache from congestion or sinus pressure or to help relieve cold related pain. They can then take a cold medicine to relieve their congestion, runny nose or cough. Remember that the active ingredients in over-the-counter cold and flu medications can also be found in your over-the-counter pain relievers. That’s why it’s important to check the ingredients of all your medications so you don’t risk a potentially dangerous overdose.
In addition to the risk of double doses, new research has shown that many adults fail to consider that the over-the-counter medication that worked for them in the past may not be the best choice for them now. Current health conditions, age, and other medications can change how an OTC affects you. For example, adults over 60 may have an increased risk of stomach bleeding when using ibuprofen and naproxen sodium.
If you haven’t thought about these factors lately, you’re not alone: 1 in 5 people don’t think any key safety factors when choosing an over-the-counter pain reliever, according to a recent survey led by the US Pain Foundation with support from McNeil Consumer Healthcare. Two in 3 Americans (65%) don’t consider the other over-the-counter medications they take, and nearly half – 45% – don’t consider the prescription medications they take when choosing a pain reliever in free sale.
Part of the problem is that many people don’t see over-the-counter drugs for what they are – drugs. They are generally safe and effective when used as directed, but like any medication, they carry potential risks.
When choosing an over-the-counter medication, whether it’s a cold and flu medicine or a pain reliever, it’s important to remember:
- Over-the-counter medications are not interchangeable, and some types may not be right for everyone. What worked for you in the past may not be the best choice for you now. Factors such as age, current medical condition, and other medications you are taking can affect the risk associated with some over-the-counter medications.
- Always read and follow the label to be sure you are taking the correct dose of your over-the-counter medicine. Take only the amount indicated on the label.
- Only take one medicine at a time that contains the same type of active ingredient.
Still have questions ? You can consult reliable sources online, such as GetReliefResponsibly.com or the US Food and Drug Administration for information to help you make the right decisions about your over-the-counter medications. You can also always ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.