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Over-The-Counter Medications Time Tool Patient Guide
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Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications Must be Used Correctly
OTC is an abbreviation for over-the-counter. OTC medications are available in retail stores without a doctor’s prescription. These drugs are economical and convenient. They are generally safe when used as directed. However, like all medications, OTC medications can cause unwanted and sometimes dangerous effects. Know that use of OTC medications may:

  • Interact with other medicines you take (including vitamins, herbals, prescription drugs) or
  • Result in side effects
You should follow instructions provided in the "Warnings” section of the package labeling of OTC medicines regarding when you should stop use and consult a physician.
For instance:
  • You should stop using OTC cough and cold medications and consult a physician if your symptoms get worse or last more than 5 days (children) or 7 days (adults).
  • You should stop using fever reducers and consult a physician if your fever gets worse or lasts more than 3 days.
  • You should stop using OTC pain medications and consult a physician if redness and swelling is present in the painful area or when your pain gets worse or lasts more than 10 days.
  • You should stop using OTC laxatives and consult a physician if you have rectal bleeding, or if you fail to have a bowel movement after use.
If you do not follow these instructions, which are specific to each individual OTC medication, you are at risk of delaying the medical diagnosis and appropriate treatment of a serious illness.

Keeping Yourself and Your Family Safe When Using OTC Medicines
OTC drugs are strong medicines. Use and handle them with the same caution you would apply to prescription medications.
  • Talk to your doctor. Always discuss OTC use with your family doctor. Bring a list of all of the medications, herbals, or vitamins you take with you when visit your doctor. Make sure this list goes in your medical records.

  • Know about the medicines you take. Read the entire label and understand the proper use. Read in good light to see the directions clearly. If you don’t understand the directions check with your doctor or pharmacist. Know if you are allergic to either the active or inactive ingredients. Study the warnings so you will be alert to safety issues.
  • Know about the active ingredients in your OTC medications
    The active ingredients in OTC medications are what make that product treat your symptoms. It is especially important to pay attention to the "Active Ingredient” section of the package labeling if you are taking more than one medicine—whether OTC or prescription—to make sure you are not taking too much of the same active ingredient. Too much of an active ingredient can be harmful.
  • Take medicine exactly as directed in the package labeling
    • Do not take more drugs than recommended. Unless recommended by your doctor, never take a higher dose than recommended thinking it will work faster or longer. It probably won’t and may cause side effects.
    • Do not take a drug for longer than recommended. If you still have symptoms, call your doctor.
    • Do not take a drug for an illness or symptom not stated on the label.
    • Don’t crush, break or chew tablets or capsules unless the directions tell you to.
    • Don’t combine OTC or prescription medications without checking with your doctor first.
    • Avoid drinking alcohol while taking OTC medications especially acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Limit your OTC use. Don’t use medications unless you really need them. Stop taking the medication when your symptoms stop.
  • Correct storage. Medications need to be properly stored for maximal safety and efficacy. If incorrectly stored, children or pets may take harmful doses of OTC drugs.
    • Keep all medications in their original container.
    • Correctly replace the child-resistant caps on all medicines after every use.
    • Keep OTC and prescription drugs out of reach and sight of children after every use.
    • Make a general house policy that all drugs are stored in one well-controlled location such as a locked drawer or cabinet, and that no drugs are stored in bedrooms, automobiles, backpacks, or school lockers.
I Don’t Need This Medication Anymore. What Now?
Follow these guidelines for proper drug disposal:
  • Look for the expiration date on the label and discard all expired medications.
  • Discard any medication not in its original container or in an unlabeled one.
  • Discard any medication that has changed its shape, size, color, or odor.
  • Discard any medication that has softened, cracked, hardened, or become cloudy.
  • Discard any medication that is no longer needed by you or your children.
Disposal – Do:
  • Remove drugs from bottle; mix unused drugs with cat litter, used coffee grounds, garbage, or other undesirable items; put this mixture in a sealed bag or container, and throw into trash.
  • For bottles, scratch off identifying marks, and throw empty bottles away.
Disposal – Don’t:
  • Don’t share drugs or give them to others.
  • Don’t flush drugs down the toilet.

The Bottom Line
Over-the-counter drugs are safe when used as directed. Respect that dangers exist with all drugs. Talk to your doctor about OTC use, follow the directions on the label, exercise caution to prevent misuse, and protect your family from errors and misuse of OTC medications. Simple steps can keep you and your family healthy and safe when using OTC medicines.

Click here to download a printable version of Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications: A Guide for Patients.

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For other information and useful links, visit the American College of Preventive Medicine website at www.acpm.org.

The American College of Preventive Medicine acknowledges the Consumer Healthcare Products Association for its support of this resource through an unrestricted educational grant.

Copyright 2011. American College of Preventive Medicine. All Rights Reserved.
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