You don't need a doctor's prescription to buy over-the-counter (OTC) medications. But this doesn’t mean they are risk-free. It’s just as important to carefully follow instructions when taking OTC drugs as it is when you take prescribed medication.
Some OTC medications pose risks for people with certain medical conditions and for pregnant women. Some drugs can cause reactions when mixed with other medications or certain foods or drinks. You may face other risks if you:
Take too much medication
Use the medication for too long a period of time
Use the medication improperly
Here's what you need to know about the most common types of OTC medicines.
OTC pain relievers are typically used for mild pain or fever. Acetaminophen is one active ingredient in common pain relievers. Other pain relievers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, include:
These drugs are generally safe and free of side effects. If taken improperly they can cause the following problems:
Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
Ibuprofen and naproxen can cause kidney damage or stomach bleeding in certain situations.
Aspirin increases the risk for an illness called Reye syndrome in children and teens with fever or the flu.
Most problems caused by laxatives are because of overuse. Typically, OTC laxatives are not recommended for people with mild constipation. If you have long-term constipation, your doctor may recommend one for a short period of time.
If you use a laxative often, you may become reliant on laxatives to have a bowel movement. You may also need to take more and more laxatives to get the same results.
Traditional OTC drugs for heartburn are antacids with familiar household names. They work by neutralizing acid in the stomach. Newer remedies, such as H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors, stop the production of acid.
Traditional antacids are usually made up of a combination of salts. These can cause diarrhea or constipation in some people. They may also keep some prescription medications from being taken into your body. The H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitor drugs usually don’t cause these problems. But, they don't work for everyone, and they can cause reactions with some prescription medications.
OTC sleep aids don't cause "sleepwalking," as some prescription sleep medicines do. However, they still have risks. Some OTC sleep aids last longer than 8 hours, which means you may still be drowsy after using the drug to sleep through the night.
OTC sleep aids shouldn't be used for more than 2 weeks. Many people don’t follow this rule. Most experts agree that if you still have sleeping problems after 2 weeks, you should see your doctor.