What Are The Health Risks Associated With Popular Over-The-Counter Drugs?

Minor ailments that get in the way of our daily lives usually mean a trip to the supermarket’s pharmacy aisle. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication can be bought without a prescription from any drugstore and often provide quick relief from aches, pains, itches, and allergies. When used in moderation, OTC medicines can prove to be a godsend, especially when you don’t have easy access to a healthcare specialist. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides which medicines are safe enough to be OTC drugs. But even then there is a risk we run – when we use OTC drugs indiscriminately, in inappropriate doses or intervals, or on vulnerable/high-risk individuals like children or the elderly. So what exactly are the risks you run with the abuse of OTCs?

1. OTC Misuse: Leads To Dizziness, Vomiting, Seizures, Or Brain Damage

One major risk would be abuse itself. Cold and cough remedies that contain dextromethorphan are often abused severely because they can cause a side effect similar to euphoria. According to a 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, over 3 million young people had used OTC cold/cough drugs to get high.1 It’s not just accessibility or lower costs that make OTC medication enticing options. Because these medicines are considered “legal,” substance abusers often assume they are not as harmful as street drugs. But, in reality, excessive doses can cause dizziness, vomiting, accelerated heart rate, lethargy, seizures, brain damage, and even death.

id="2">2. Dosage Damage: Causes Diarrhea, Dizziness, And Headaches

Using OTC meds for longer than indicated can be detrimental. For example, treating a persistent cough with an OTC syrup for more than ten days could work to mask a potentially serious respiratory infection. If overused, they can also cause serious side effects. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used commonly in cough, cold, and pain medications can cause side effects like diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, and stomach pain.2 On the other side, using antimicrobial and antifungal creams for a shorter period than directed can be equally bad. We often dab on an antifungal cream for an itch or rash, only to stop as soon as we feel the irritation subside. But if you have an infection you’re not aware of, not following through on the recommended dosage could cause the infection to come back with a vengeance.3

id="3">3. Long-Term Use: Increases Chances Of Cognitive Impairment

Some OTC drugs are dangerous even when taken judiciously over a long period of time depending on factors such as age, food habits, alcohol interactions, and consumption of other medicines. Aging adults face a far greater risk with OTC medicines. According to a University of Indiana study, older people who took OTC medication for cold or pain showed higher chances of cognitive impairment, including the risk of delirium and even Alzheimer’s. This was attributed to the chemical diphenhydramine which is commonly found in OTC drugs. This tends to block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that helps the central and peripheral nervous systems function smoothly.4

id="4">4. Interaction With Blood Pressure Medication And Decongestants

OTCs can often clash with other medicines, affecting the efficacy or potency of a prescribed dose of medication. Some decongestants tend to interfere with blood pressure medication. Many OTC drugs are also high in sodium, compromising the sodium levels in your body and raising blood pressure. The American Heart Association, in fact, recommends that people on blood pressure medication consult their physicians before taking any OTC drug.5 OTC cold or allergy drugs can intensify the effect of the blood thinners taken by people on anti-coagulation medicines. Some pain relievers may also cause blood to thicken.6 People with thyroid, kidney, liver, immune system, or cardiovascular problems are at higher risk of an adverse reaction to an OTC medicine.


Check with the pharmacist to make sure an OTC drug doesn’t clash with your existing medication. Or better still, consult your physician and find out what OTC medicines you should avoid.

Avoid Giving Unprescribed OTC Drugs To Children

Every parent knows the panic of a midnight puke or fever and the scurrying around for medical help. OTC drugs naturally become a viable option at these times. According to a Consumer Healthcare Products Association survey, 7 out of 10 parents have resorted to OTC medicines to treat their sick child for a late-night, unexpected illness.7 Some parents even conceded to using adult doses of acetaminophen when a pediatric dose wasn’t available. They may seem like an easy option, but steer clear of giving unprescribed OTC drugs to children as much as possible. Children under the age of 2 especially should not be given any non-prescription medication. Aspirin should not be given to anyone below 19 years as it can cause a fatal condition called Reye’s Syndrome.8 Children could also be allergic to a drug or its components, and these reactions can be very severe.

Safe Practices

While it may not be possible to completely avoid OTC medication, caution and a bit of restrain are advised every time you gear up to pop an OTC pill. According to the FDA OTC guidelines, reading the “Drug Facts” label carefully, keeping tabs on the active ingredients, and following dosage and other instructions meticulously can avert many potential health problems.9

Cabinet Versus Kitchen

Before you head to the medicine cabinet for an OTC drug, try a safer natural alternative from your kitchen.

  • Chicken soup is grandma’s sure-shot cold remedy for a reason – it is proven to have mild anti-inflammatory properties and can give relief to upper respiratory illnesses.10
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  • Turmeric is a time-tested antiseptic and can be used on scrapes, cuts, and bruises.11
  • Honey has antibacterial qualities and can work on skin conditions such as acne.12
  • Ginger, fenugreek, and fennel can help cure indigestion.13 14