What's Right for You?
Advice for Americans about Self-Care: Access + Knowledge = Power
American medicine cabinets contain a growing choice of nonprescription,
over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to treat an expanding range
of ailments. OTC medicines often do more than relieve aches,
pains and itches. Some can prevent diseases like tooth decay,
cure diseases like athlete's foot and, with a doctor's guidance,
help manage recurring conditions like vaginal yeast infection,
migraine and minor pain in arthritis.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines whether
medicines are prescription or nonprescription. The term prescription
(Rx) refers to medicines that are safe and effective when used
under a doctor's care. Nonprescription or OTC drugs are medicines
FDA decides are safe and effective for use without a doctor's
FDA also has the authority to decide when a prescription drug
is safe enough to be sold directly to consumers over the counter.
This regulatory process allowing Americans to take a more active
role in their health care is known as Rx-to-OTC switch. As a
result of this process, more than 700 products sold over the
counter today use ingredients or dosage strengths available
only by prescription 30 years ago.
Increased access to OTC medicines is especially important for
our maturing population. Two out of three older Americans rate
their health as excellent to good, but four out of five report
at least one chronic condition.
Fact is, today's OTC medicines offer greater opportunity to
treat more of the aches and illnesses most likely to appear
in our later years. As we live longer, work longer, and take
a more active role in our own health care, the need grows to
become better informed about self-care.
The best way to become better informed-for young and old alike-is
to read and understand the information on OTC labels. Next to
the medicine itself, label comprehension is the most important
part of self-care with OTC medicines.
With new opportunities in self-medication come new responsibilities
and an increased need for knowledge. FDA and the Consumer Healthcare
Products Association (CHPA) have prepared the following information
to help Americans take advantage of self-care opportunities.
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OTC Know-How: It's on the Label
You wouldn't ignore your doctor's instructions for using a
prescription drug; so don't ignore the label when taking an
OTC medicine. Here's what to look for:
- PRODUCT NAME
- "ACTIVE INGREDIENTS": therapeutic substances in medicine
- "PURPOSE": product category (such as antihistamine, antacid, or cough suppressant)
- "USES": symptoms or diseases the product will treat or prevent
- "WARNINGS": when not to use the product, when to stop taking it, when to see a doctor, and possible side effects
- "DIRECTIONS": how much to take, how to take it, and how long to take it
- "OTHER INFORMATION": such as storage information
- "INACTIVE INGREDIENTS": substances such as binders, colors, or flavoring
You can help yourself read the label too. Always use enough
light. It usually takes three times more light to read the same
line at age 60 than at age 30. If necessary, use your glasses
or contact lenses when reading labels.
Always remember to look for the statement describing the tamper-evident
feature(s) before you buy the product and when you use it.
When it comes to medicines, more does not necessarily mean
better. You should never misuse OTC medicines by taking them
longer or in higher doses than the label recommends. Symptoms
that persist are a clear signal it's time to see a doctor.
Be sure to read the label each time you purchase a product.
Just because two or more products are from the same brand family
doesn't mean they are meant to treat the same conditions or
contain the same ingredients.
Remember, if you read the label and still have questions, talk
to a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist. back
Drug Interactions: A Word to the Wise
Although mild and relatively uncommon, interactions involving
OTC drugs can produce unwanted results or make medicines less
effective. It's especially important to know about drug interactions
if you're taking Rx and OTC drugs at the same time.
Some drugs can also interact with foods and beverages, as well
as with health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease,
and high blood pressure.
Here are a few drug interaction cautions for some common OTC
- Avoid alcohol if you are taking antihistamines, cough-cold
products with the ingredient dextromethorphan, or drugs that
- Do not use drugs that treat sleeplessness if you are taking
prescription sedatives or tranquilizers.
- Check with your doctor before taking products containing
aspirin if you're taking a prescription blood thinner or if
you have diabetes or gout.
- Do not use laxatives when you have stomach pain, nausea,
- Unless directed by a doctor, do not use a nasal decongestant
if you are taking a prescription drug for high blood pressure
or depression, or if you have heart or thyroid disease, diabetes,
or prostate problems.
This is not a complete list. Read the label! Drug labels change
as new information becomes available. That's why it's important
to read the label each time you take medicine. back
Time for a Medicine Cabinet Checkup?
- Be sure to look through your medicine supply at least once
- Always store medicines in a cool, dry place or as stated
on the label.
- Throw away any medicines that are past the expiration date.
- To make sure no one takes the wrong medicine, keep all medicines
in their original containers. back
Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding
Drugs can pass from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. A
safe amount of medicine for the mother may be too much for the
unborn baby. If you're pregnant, always talk with your doctor
before taking any drugs, Rx or OTC.
Although most drugs pass into breast milk in concentrations
too low to have any unwanted effects on the baby, breast-feeding
mothers still need to be careful. Always ask your doctor or
pharmacist before taking any medicine while breast-feeding.
A doctor or pharmacist can tell you how to adjust the timing
and dosing of most medicines so the baby is exposed to the lowest
amount possible, or whether the drugs should be avoided altogether.
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Kids Aren't Just Small Adults
OTC drugs rarely come in one-size-fits-all. Here are some tips
about giving OTC medicines to children:
- Children aren't just small adults, so don't estimate the
dose based on their size.
- Read the label. Follow all directions.
- Follow any age limits on the label.
- Some OTC products come in different strengths. Be aware!
- Know the difference between TBSP. (tablespoon) and TSP.
(teaspoon). They are very different doses.
- Be careful about converting dose instructions. If the label
says two teaspoons, it's best to use a measuring spoon or
a dosing cup marked in teaspoons, not a common kitchen spoon.
- Don't play doctor. Don't double the dose just because your
child seems sicker than last time.
- Before you give your child two medicines at the same time,
talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
- Never let children take medicine by themselves.
- Never call medicine candy to get your kids to take it. If
they come across the medicine on their own, they're likely
to remember that you called it candy. back
Child-resistant closures are designed for repeated use to make
it difficult for children to open. Remember, if you don't re-lock
the closure after each use, the child-resistant device can't
do its job—keeping children out!
It's best to store all medicines and dietary supplements where
children can neither see nor reach them. Containers of pills
should not be left on the kitchen counter as a reminder. Purses
and briefcases are among the worst places to hide medicines
from curious kids. And since children are natural mimics, it's
a good idea not to take medicine in front of them. They may
be tempted to "play house" with your medicine later on.
If you find some packages too difficult to open—and don't
have young children living with you or visiting—you should
know the law allows one package size for each OTC medicine to
be sold without child-resistant features. If you don't see it
on the store shelf, ask. back
Protect Yourself Against Tampering
Makers of OTC medicines seal most products in tamper-evident
packaging (TEP) to help protect against criminal tampering.
TEP works by providing visible evidence if the package has been
disturbed. But OTC packaging cannot be 100 percent tamper-proof.
Here's how to help protect yourself:
- Be alert to the tamper-evident features on the package before
you open it. These features are described on the label.
- Inspect the outer packaging before you buy it. When you
get home, inspect the medicine inside.
- Don't buy an OTC product if the packaging is damaged.
- Don't use any medicine that looks discolored or different
in any way.
- If anything looks suspicious, be suspicious. Contact the
store where you bought the product. Take it back!
- Never take medicines in the dark.
This material is distributed as a public service by:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer
Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), a national organization
representing companies dedicated to providing consumers with
safe and effective over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and dietary
supplements and the information to use them properly.
For free bulk quantities of the printed brochure, write to:
Consumer Healthcare Products Association
1150 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036