Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Nonprescription Medicines and Products
A nonprescription medicine—sometimes called an over-the-counter, or
OTC, medicine—is any drug that you can buy without a doctor's prescription. But
don't assume that all nonprescription drugs are safe for you. These drugs can
interact with other medicines and can sometimes cause serious health
problems. And if you take more than the normal or recommended amount, overdose may occur.
Some medicines should only be used by adults or older
children. Be sure to read the package instructions carefully, or ask a
pharmacist before giving any product to an infant or
young child. If you are pregnant, always check with your pharmacist or doctor
before using any nonprescription medicine, to make sure it is safe to use
Carefully read the label of any nonprescription
drug you use, especially if you also take prescription medicines for other
health problems. Ask your pharmacist for help in finding a nonprescription drug
best suited to your needs. Use these
tips on how to avoid common
And find out the safest way to throw away medicines that are expired or no longer used. Use these drug disposal tips to help prevent people and animals from taking medicines that aren't intended for them:
Some common nonprescription medicines
These drugs can be very helpful when used properly but can
cause serious problems if used incorrectly. The following tips will help you
use common nonprescription drugs wisely and safely. In some cases, you may find
that you don't need to take them at all.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Antacids are taken to
indigestion caused by excess stomach acid.
There are several kinds of antacids. Learn what ingredients are in each type so
that you can avoid any adverse effects.
Acid reducers decrease the amount of acid produced by the
stomach. They help relieve heartburn. There are several types of nonprescription acid reducers on the
market. Examples include H2 blockers (such as famotidine and ranitidine) and proton pump inhibitors (such as lansoprazole and omeprazole). Each has slightly different cautions for use. Read and carefully follow
the instructions included with the package.
are four types of products used to prevent or treat constipation: bulking
agents, stool softeners, osmotic laxatives, and stimulant laxatives.
Bulking agents, such as bran or psyllium (found in Metamucil, for example) ease
constipation by increasing the volume of stool and making it easier to pass.
Regular use of bulking agents is safe and helps make them more
Stool softeners (such as Colace
and Docusate Calcium) soften the stool, making it easier to pass. Stool
softeners can be most effective if you drink plenty of water throughout the
Osmotic laxatives, such as Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia, or Miralax, and nonabsorbable sugars (such as lactulose or sorbitol), hold fluids in the intestine. They also draw fluids into the intestine from other tissue and blood vessels. This extra fluid in the intestines makes the stool softer and easier to pass. Drink plenty of water when you use this type of laxative.
Stimulant laxatives (such as Correctol, Ex-Lax, and Senokot) make stool move faster through the intestines by irritating the lining of the intestines. Regular use of stimulant laxatives is not recommended. Stimulant laxatives change the tone and feeling in the large intestine, and you can become dependent on using laxatives all the time to have a bowel movement.
are many other ways to treat constipation, such as drinking more water. For
more information, see the topics
Constipation, Age 12 and Older and Constipation, Age 11 and Younger.
There are two types of medicines that help stop diarrhea, those that thicken the stool and those that slow intestinal
Thickening mixtures (such as
psyllium) absorb water. This helps bulk up the stool and make it more firm.
products slow the spasms of the intestine. Loperamide (the active ingredient in
products such as Imodium and Pepto Diarrhea Control) is an example of this
type of preparation. Some products contain both thickening and antispasmodic
For more information on diarrhea symptoms and treatment, see the topics Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older and Diarrhea, Age 11 and Younger.
In general, whether you
take medicines for your cold or not, you'll get better in about a week. Rest
and liquids are the best treatment for a cold. Antibiotics will not help. But
nonprescription medicines help relieve some cold
symptoms, such as nasal congestion and cough. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
especially runny nose, often respond to antihistamines. Antihistamines are also
found in many cold medicines, often together with a decongestant.
Decongestants make breathing easier
by shrinking swollen
mucous membranes in the nose, allowing air to pass
through. They also help relieve runny nose and postnasal drip, which can cause
a sore throat.
Decongestants can be taken orally or used as nose
drops or sprays. Oral decongestants (pills) provide longer relief, but they cause more side effects.
Sprays and drops provide rapid but
temporary relief. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact
with other drugs than oral decongestants are.
Saline nose drops are not decongestants but may help
keep nasal tissues moist so the tissues can filter air.
Your pharmacist can suggest a medicine for your cold and allergy symptoms.
Steroid nasal sprays help relieve a stuffy nose also. They work in a different way than decongestant medicines work. And they don't cause a rebound effect. They start working quickly, but it may be several
weeks before you get the full effect.
Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and
mucus out of your respiratory tract. Sometimes, though, coughs are
severe enough to impair breathing or prevent rest.
There are two types of coughs: productive and nonproductive. A productive cough produces phlegm or mucus (sputum). It's generally best if you don't try to stop (suppress) a productive cough. A nonproductive cough does not produce sputum. It is a dry cough.
Water and other
liquids, such as fruit juices, are good cough syrups. They help
soothe the throat and also moisten and thin mucus so it can be coughed up more
You can make a simple and soothing cough syrup at home by
mixing 1 part lemon juice with 2 parts honey. Use as often as needed. This can
be given to children 1 year and older.
There are two kinds
of cough medicines:
Antihistamines dry up nasal secretions and are
commonly used to treat allergy symptoms and itching.
There are two types:
If your runny
nose is caused by allergies, an antihistamine may help. For cold symptoms,
home treatment and perhaps a decongestant will probably be more helpful. It is
usually best to take only single-ingredient allergy or cold preparations,
instead of those containing many active ingredients.
as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are
single-ingredient antihistamine products.
Products such as
Coricidin, Dristan, and Triaminic contain both a decongestant and an
There are dozens of pain-relief
products. Most contain either aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These three
drugs, as well as naproxen, relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin,
ibuprofen, and naproxen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a
class of drugs called
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
When you buy pain relievers, keep in mind that generic products are
chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually
work equally well.
Aspirin is widely used for relieving
pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces
swelling and inflammation. Aspirin comes as adult-strength (325 mg) or low-dose (81 mg). Although it
seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug.
addition to relieving pain and inflammation, aspirin is effective against many
other ailments. Because of the danger of side effects and the interactions
aspirin may have with other medicines, do not try these uses of aspirin without
a doctor's supervision.
Heart attack and stroke: Aspirin in low but regular doses may help prevent heart attacks and
strokes in certain people. For more
Migraines: Regular, low-dose aspirin use may reduce the
frequency of migraine headaches. For more information, see the topic Migraine Headaches.
Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in products such as Advil and Motrin)
and naproxen (in products such as Aleve) are
aspirin, these drugs relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also like
aspirin, they can cause nausea, stomach irritation, and heartburn.
Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in products such
as Tylenol) reduces fever and relieves pain. It does not have the
anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDS, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. But it also
does not cause stomach upset and other side effects.
Other Works Consulted
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Unintentional drug poisoning in the United States. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/pdf/poison-issue-brief.pdf.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2011). Disposal of unused medicines: What you should know. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm#MEDICINES.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineJohn Pope, MD - PediatricsSpecialist Medical ReviewerTheresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Current as ofApril 21, 2016
Current as of:
April 21, 2016
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2016 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.