These days, there seems to be a medicine to treat any kind of ailment, whether through a prescription or over the counter. But how much medicine should you take, how often and is it even safe?
Roughly one-third of adults today are using over-the-counter (OTC) drugs on a regular basis. Medications that were once provided by prescription – particularly those drugs used to treat heartburn and indigestion, such as Nexium or Prilosec – can now be purchased without a doctor’s signature, making it easier for individuals to treat minor health woes at home.
“Patients are getting more involved in the management of their own health, researching their own symptoms, and perhaps trying OTC meds for minor complaints before going to see a doctor,” says Jennifer Purdy, a clinical pharmacist with Riverside Health System’s Ambulatory Clinical Pharmacy Services. “OTCs are usually pretty affordable as well, which may make them an attractive alternative for patients who feel their prescription meds are too expensive.”
Financial reasons may be a factor for the increase in OTC drug usage, along with the Internet and social media. More people are researching medications and more drug companies are finding new uses for their medicines and advertising their products directly to consumers.
“Perhaps several areas that have noted an increase in available medications are cholesterol-lowering medications, antidepressants and narcotics,” says Dr. O.T. Adcock, Jr., associate medical director for Riverside Medical Group.
Medicine comes in various forms: capsules, tablets and gel caps, for example. Different forms have different release rates, which can affect the onset of active ingredients.
“There are also liquid, inhaled, injected and topically applied dosage forms available,” Adcock says. “The choice to use a tablet versus a capsule or gel cap can depend on several things and may even be aesthetics. Liquid medications may be best-delivered in gel caps. Powders can be delivered in tablets or capsules. If the taste of the ingredient is unpleasant, you would more likely use a capsule. If the medication needed to be chewed and then swallowed, you would use a tablet.”
More patients are also looking toward natural or herbal remedies for relief.
“In the OTC market, I see a growing trend toward patients wanting to use natural or herbal products,” Purdy says. “Patients sometimes think these options are safer because they are natural, which we know is often not the case.”
No matter what you take, it’s vital to speak with a physician if you have any questions or concerns.
“Any medication, whether it is a prescription, an herbal supplement or over the counter, has an action within your body, which can be positive, or it can be negative and harmful,” says Tanya Claiborne, emergency clinical pharmacist at Sentara Port Warwick. “Before you take anything, you should consult with a doctor or pharmacist so that they can help you make an informed choice about your health care. If we don’t have any knowledge of what you are ingesting, we can’t direct you in your health care.”
It is also important to read the directions about when and how to take a medication, as well as any possible side effects.
“Your pharmacist can help you with questions, and often there are special notations on the packaging to take it with food,” says Jay Levine, pharmacy director for Bon Secours Hampton Roads Atrium Pharmacy at DePaul. “In general, don’t consume alcohol if you are taking anything that might cause drowsiness. Too many people feel that if something is over the counter, it is innocuous. But over the counter doesn’t mean a medication is without side effects, and taking too much can be a problem.”
Mixing medications can also be dangerous.
“A concern that pharmacists have is a condition called polypharmacy – any person taking four or more medications,” Levine says. “This is an increasing trend and, without someone paying close attention to the interactions, a patient could be taking one drug to address the side effects of another drug and causing more side effects that need to be addressed.”
Patients should keep a record of what medicines they are taking and update the list with their physicians frequently. Also pay attention to a drug’s expiration date, as well as where it should be stored. Avoid exposure to heat and don’t keep medicine in the bathroom, as exposure to moisture can also affect certain medications.
“If something doesn’t look right, doesn’t smell right or doesn’t feel right, don’t put it in your body,” Claiborne says. Shelf life for medicine is typically a year, and should be discarded after that time.
“In general, you should take all medications as prescribed and should not have them on hand for extended periods of time,” Levine says. “This is especially a concern if you have pain medications. Don’t keep them for extended periods of time. That practice can pose a risk for others to misuse them.”