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Natural Awakenings Hawaii

Are Over-the-Counter Medications Always Safe?

Jan 29, 2016 09:36AM ● By MARSHA R. SAKAMAKI

There are more than 300,000 over-the-counter (OTC) medications currently on the market, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and that number continues to grow as more prescription medications change to OTC status. Four out of five Americans routinely take them, and it’s easy to understand why: They are cheap, easy to get, and a doctor or pharmacist doesn’t need to be consulted before they are taken. So people take them for aches and pains, coughs and colds, fevers, allergies, skin disorders, heartburn and the list goes on. However, it’s important to understand that there are some risks involved.

OTC drugs can be safe if used as directed for indicated conditions; however, one in five adults that self-medicate admit to taking more than the recommended dose or taking an OTC medication more frequently than recommended.

A recent New York Times article states that one of the most widely used drugs is acetaminophen, which is found in Tylenol and other products used to relieve pain and fever. Overdoses of this ingredient result in 30,000 hospitalizations annually, often because of acute liver failure caused by excessive amounts of the drug. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, about one person in four unwittingly exceeds the safe limit of 4,000 mg of this ingredient over a 24-hour period, even when taking only one product. If two products that contain the drug are taken, 46 percent will overdose.

A consumer poll in 2001 by the National Council on Patient Information and Education found that most people do not read all of the information on product labels and therefore miss essential information concerning usage. Similar to prescription drugs, it’s important to consider the possible side effects. OTC drugs should not be taken by people with certain health conditions or combined with other drugs—prescribed or OTC—because this might result in adverse interactions.

Roughly 40 percent of OTC drugs are used by those older than 65. Because of chronic health issues, a diminished ability to process drugs, and the vast number of prescription and OTC medications that many older people tend to take, they are at the greatest risk for negative side effects and interactions. The results of misuse in this population can include falls, depression, confusion, hallucination and malnutrition.

What is the most misused OTC remedy? Laxatives. When taken too often to prevent constipation, stimulant laxatives can cause dependency. The bowel can lose its ability to function without them.

Sleeping pills that contain antihistamines tend to lose their effectiveness over time, which can cause people to take more than the recommended dosage. Regardless, they should not be used for more than two weeks.

Antacids can cause diarrhea or constipation and block the absorption of certain medications. There are better alternatives, such as H2 blockers (like Pepcid and Zantac) and proton-pump inhibitors (like Nexium and Prilosec) that stop the stomach from producing acid. However, these drugs may cause problems if taken for too long, including bone fractures and magnesium deficiencies that can lead to seizures.

For people with chronic health conditions, there’s the risk of potentially serious adverse reactions. lists various medical conditions that may need extra precautions. These include heart disease; diabetes; high blood pressure; asthma; epilepsy; bleeding or clotting disorders; thyroid problems; enlarged prostate; breathing problems; glaucoma; psychiatric problems; gout; immune system, kidney or liver problems; and Parkinson’s disease. People with such conditions should talk with their doctors before taking any OTC drug.

It’s wise to fill all prescriptions at the same pharmacy to make it easier to spot any potentially negative drug interactions with any OTC medications one may be taking. Of course, it’s also important to read the entire label on all OTC drugs and to note the correct dose, time intervals and any precautions, including whether it should be taken with or without food. Why take unnecessary risks?

The Wellness Center Hawaii, in Honolulu, offers the latest in cutting-edge and innovative energy-based techniques, applications and products that support one’s journey to optimal health. Its vision is to walk with clients on the road toward achieving clients’ desired goals.

Marsha R. Sakamaki is the developer of The Wellness Center Hawaii. For more information, call 808-732-5363, email [email protected] or visit

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