Over-the-counter medications can sometimes be very useful. They are easily accessible, but they are not without risks.
Medications available without a prescription
The term over-the-counter (OTC) medication refers to medication that, from a regulatory perspective, does not require a medical prescription, but must be supervised. It must be kept in a section of the pharmacy that is accessible to the public, but remains under the constant control and supervision of a pharmacist. Of course, these products can be purchased without necessarily consulting a pharmacist.
Self-medication with OTCs is common practice. It can be used to relieve, prevent or treat minor health issues (colds, pain, indigestion, sore throat, warts, etc.). Therefore, it is mainly reserved for minor everyday ailments, those that are easily recognized, for which the cause is known, and that occur occasionally without leading to severe symptoms or complications. To ensure the safe use of OTC medications, it is important to be aware of the possible risks involved.
To ensure the proper use of a drug, it is essential that the user have reliable, detailed and objective information. Although there is a great deal of information on the drug packaging, it is often insufficient. Above all, it does not take into account the specific characteristics of each individual taking a given medication. This is why it is recommended to speak to your pharmacist each time you wish to take an OTC medication.
The decision whether or not to take medication is an important one and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few examples of questions you should ask yourself before considering self-medication:
- What are the potential benefits of the medication to be taken?
- How does it work?
- How soon should I notice or feel the benefits?
- Is this the best available option?
- What are the possible adverse effects of the medication?
- Is this medication safe for me, given my age, health, situation, and personal characteristics?
- Can it interact with other medications I take, and if so, what should I do?
As a medication expert, your pharmacist can answer all these questions and more! If you live in Quebec, they can prescribe the medication you have selected, if it is beneficial to you.
Misuse and overuse
Some people trivialize the use of OTC drugs and, consequently, make inappropriate or even risky use of them. Examples of inappropriate use (misuse) of OTC medications include not taking the correct dosage, combining incompatible medications, and using them for reasons other than therapeutic purposes.
Overuse of OTC drugs, whether or not it is intentional, can lead to serious consequences. In some cases, it can even lead to drug intoxication. Each year in Canada, there are reports of such incidents involving many different OTC drugs. Sometimes, a completely harmless medication at the recommended dose can be toxic when used in high doses. This is the case, for example, with acetaminophen.
People most at risk
The use of over-the-counter medications requires extra caution for certain people who are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of their use (let alone misuse). Here are some examples:
- babies or young children (under age six)
- pregnant women
- breastfeeding mothers
- people living with a chronic disease (high blood pressure, diabetes, heart, kidney, or respiratory disease, a thyroid disorder, etc.)
- the elderly
Here is some advice intended for optimal and safe use of OTCs:
- Always follow the dosage and other instructions provided by the manufacturer or pharmacist.
- If the OTC drug is intended for use in a baby or a child, ask your pharmacist to calculate the dose based on the child's age and/or weight. Packaging instructions may not always be accurate.
- Always measure the dose with a syringe, cup or other graduated measuring instrument.
- Watch out for drug combinations, which include two or more different drugs in the same formulation. You may not need to take them all. It is always best to avoid taking a drug unnecessarily.
- Keep all medication, including OTC drugs, out of reach and out of sight of children and anyone else who is deemed to be at risk of misuse.
- Always store your OTC drugs according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer or your pharmacist. Do not store them in a place subject to significant temperature variations and humidity, such as the bathroom or in a car.
- Clean out your medicine cabinet regularly.
- Do not take medication that has expired. Bring any expired, damaged or unneeded medication to your pharmacy for safe and environmentally friendly disposal.
- If you are unsure about the proper use of an OTC, speak to your pharmacist. Additionally, remember that your situation could require seeing a doctor. If this is the case, do so promptly!
In conclusion, OTC drugs are to a certain extent the protected domain of pharmacists. Team up with your pharmacist so you can get the most out of OTC drugs without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks.