While over-the-counter drugs are safe and effective when used correctly, experts say many Americans are overusing or misusing them with potentially dangerous consequences.
Anita Brikman is the Executive Director of the Educational Foundation of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. She educates consumers about the safe use of over-the-counter medications that treat ailments including allergies, fever, cold, flu and pain. “They’re a first line of defense from minor to moderate symptoms, and they’re used safely and effectively by millions of Americans,” she says.
Headache pain specialist Dr. David Dodick of the Mayo Clinic says over -the-counter medications are an important tool. But, his research shows a problem.
“My colleagues and I recently completed a population-based study across the United States and found that amongst patients who had at least one headache within the past 30 days, fifteen percent overused these over-the-counter analgesics,” he says.
It’s not just headache patients. Dr Dodick says the perception for some is that anything you can buy without a prescription isn’t really a drug. And that for people with certain risk factors, overuse and misuse of certain OTC pain relievers can potentially lead to gastrointestinal problems including ulcers, kidney disease, and that’s not all. “We know now all of them increase the risk significantly of myocardial infarction or having a heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Dodick.
Dr Dodick says when it comes to OTC pain relievers, he isn’t worried about addiction.
But he has seen frequent headache sufferers slip into a habit of taking the medications, say before an event, in anticipation of getting a headache. He says, “There is a habituation where the habit-forming, they take the medication and think nothing of taking the medication at the slightest sign of pain.”
Three quarters of primary care physicians recommend over the counter medications before a prescription.
Brikman stresses the way to avoid possible misuse is to follow the drug facts label closely…every time. “It has all the information you need: how often you should take this medicine, how much you should take, and, very importantly, when you should stop and consult a healthcare provider.”
The FDA doesn’t regulate over the counter medications like prescriptions, although OTC’s do have to prove safety and efficacy and the FDA does regulate the labeling.