Wise Health Care Choices  »  Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are ones that you can get without a prescription. Often, they are less potent than prescribed ones. When taken in large amounts, though, an OTC medicine might equal or exceed the dose of a prescribed medicine. Read the information on the label. To learn more about OTC medicine labels, access www.fda.gov. Search for “over-the-counter medicine label.”

Use OTC Medicines Wisely

  1. Ask your doctor or health care provider what OTC products are safe for you to use and what you should take for pain and fever.

  2. To prevent harmful side effects and interactions, review all of the OTC medicines, supplements, and herbal remedies that you take with your doctor.

  3. Do not take OTC medicines on a regular basis unless your doctor tells you to.

  4. Read the package labels. Heed the warnings listed. If you are unsure whether or not an OTC medication will help or harm you, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

  5. Store medicines in a dry place and out of children’s reach. Do not call medicine “candy.”

  6. Before you take a medicine, check the expiration date. Discard expired medicines. Crush pills. Dissolve them in water. Mix this with used coffee grounds or kitty litter and put it in the garbage in a sealed bag.

  7. If you have an allergy to a medicine, check the list of ingredients on OTC medicine labels. Find out if what you are allergic to is in them. Some labels will warn persons with certain allergies to avoid taking that medicine.

  8. Do not take any OTC product if you are pregnant or nursing a baby unless your doctor or health care provider says it is okay.

  9. Before taking herbal remedies and supplements, check with your doctor.

Basic Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications


Common Use

Side Effects/Warnings/Interactions


(e.g., Tums, Rolaids, Mylanta).

Stomach upset. Heartburn.

Don’t use for more than 2 weeks without your doctor’s advice. Don’t use high-sodium ones if on a low-salt diet. Don’t use if you have chronic kidney failure.

Antidiarrheal medicine (e.g., Kaopectate, Imodium A-D, Pepto-Bismol).


Don’t give Pepto-Bismol to anyone under 19 years of age. It contains salicylates, which have been linked to Reye’s Syndrome. Also, Pepto-Bismol can cause black stools.


(e.g., Chlor-Trimeton, Benadryl).

Allergies. Cold symptom relief. Relieves itching.

May make you drowsy or agitated. Can cause dry mouth and/or problems with urinating. Don’t use with alcohol, when operating machines, or when driving. Don’t use if you have glaucoma or an enlarged prostate or problems passing urine.

Cough suppressant

(e.g., Robitussin-DM or others with dextromethorphan).

Dry cough without mucus.

May make you drowsy. People with glaucoma or problems passing urine should avoid ones with diphenhydramine.


(e.g., Sudafed, Dimetapp).

Stuffy and runny nose. Postnasal drip. Allergies. Fluid in the ears.

Don’t use if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, a history of stroke, or an enlarged prostate.

Expectorant (e.g., Robitussin or others with guaifenesin).

Cough with mucus.

Don’t give with an antihistamine.

Laxatives (e.g., Ex-Lax, Correctol (stimulant-types), Metamucil (bulk-forming type).


Long-term use of stimulant-type can lead to dependence and to muscle weakness due to potassium loss.

Throat anesthetic (e.g., Sucrets, Chloraseptic spray).

Minor sore throat.

Don’t give throat lozenges to children under age 5.

Toothache anesthetic

(e.g., Anbesol).

Toothache. Teething.

Call doctor before giving to babies under 4 months old.

Pain Relievers


Common Use

Side Effects/Warnings/Interactions


(e.g., Tylenol, Anacin-3, Datril, Liquiprin, Panadol, Tempra).

Gives pain relief. Lowers fever.    Does not reduce swelling.

More gentle on stomach than other OTC pain relievers. Can result in liver problems in heavy alcohol users. Large doses or long-term use can cause liver or kidney damage.


(e.g., Bayer, Bufferin).

Gives pain relief. Lowers fever and swelling.

Can cause stomach upset (which is made worse with alcohol use). May cause stomach ulcers and bleeding. Avoid if you: Have an ulcer, have asthma, are under 19 years of age (due to its link to Reye’s Syndrome), and/or are having surgery within 2 weeks. High doses or prolonged use can cause ringing in the ears.

Ibuprofen* (e.g., Advil, Motrin, Adult and Children’s Advil).

Ketoprofen* for adults           (e.g., Actron, Orudis KT).

Naproxen Sodium* for adults (e.g., Aleve).

Gives pain relief. Lowers fever and swelling.

Can cause stomach upset and peptic ulcers. Take with milk or food. Can make you more sensitive to the effects of the sun. Don’t use if you are allergic to aspirin. Don’t use if you have a peptic ulcer, blood clotting problems, or kidney disease.

* These medicines are examples of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Note: Consult your health care provider about using herbal products and nutritional supplements. Harm can result from the product itself, taking too much of it, and/or combining it with other products, including OTC and prescription medicines. DO NOT take: Anabolic steroids; muscle building products, Green Hornet, Liquid Speed, Snuffadelic, Adderrall, or Ritalin (to pull an all nighter).


Food and Drug Administration


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)