Over-the-counter medications can sometimes be very useful. They are easily accessible, but they are not without risks.
Medications available without a prescription
What is meant by over-the-counter (OTC) medication is medication that, from a regulation perspective, does not require a medical prescription, but must be monitored. It must be kept in a section of the pharmacy that is accessible to the public, but remains under the control and constant 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 especially used for minor everyday ailments, those that are easily recognized, for which the cause is known, and that occur occasionally without leading to severe symptoms. To ensure the safe use of OTCs, it is important to be aware of the possible risks involved.
In order to ensure the proper use of a drug, it is essential that the user be provided with valid, complete 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 who purchases a given medication. This is why it is recommended to speak to your pharmacist each time you wish to take an OTC.
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 long after taking it should I notice or feel the beneficial effect?
- 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, personal characteristics, and other medications I am taking?
- Can it interact with other medications I am already taking, 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
Certain people trivialize the use of OTCs 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 a product for purposes other than therapy.
Overuse of OTCs, whether or not it is intentional, can have 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 OTCs. 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 with chronic diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, heart, kidney, or respiratory disease, thyroid disorders, etc.)
- the elderly
- people who are considered more vulnerable for other reasons.
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 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 OTCs, out of reach and out of sight of children and anyone else who is deemed to be at risk of misuse.
- Always store your OTCs 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, OTCs are to a certain extent the exclusive preserve of pharmacists. Team up with your pharmacist so you can get the most out of OTCs without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks.