Many of us assume the over-the counter medicines we buy will work for anyone, but you have to read the label to know if they’re really safe for you. A toxicologist explains what you'll see.
Dr. Sarah Shafer is a toxicologist and Emergency Medicine specialist with North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Hospital.
What should the over-the counter label include: “The name of the drug itself, which is something I think a lot of people aren’t as familiar with. For example, a lot of people will take cough medicines when they’re sick, and they may or may not realize they contain acetaminophen, which is Tylenol, in addition to other medications. So that is one important aspect on the label – figuring out exactly what you’re taking. They won’t list the brand names of the drugs. They’ll list the chemical names. In addition, it’ll list the recommended dosages, and the symptoms the drugs are supposed to treat individually.”
What about inactive ingredients? “Inactive ingredients generally are the inert compounds that are used to make the medicine. Pills are made with the active ingredient, which is the pharmaceutical drug. And there will often be binders in it that kind of make the body of the pill. They may affect how the medication is absorbed. It is important to pay attention to the non-active ingredients because some people do have allergies to those ingredients. I think a common one would be an allergy to a certain type of dye that might be used in printing. And so some people might have to take a non-printed Benadryl — diphenhydramine — versus the more commonly purchased Benadryl that has the actual name printed on the pill with red dye.
Is the OTC effective after the expiration date? "The manufacturer can’t guarantee the medicine will have an effect after that date. And that’s usually because chemicals naturally break down. We recommend that if someone has a medication and it’s past the expiration date, repurchase the medication because it’s probably not going to be effective.”
Before using any OTC: "I think everyone should talk to their general provider or whoever’s prescribing their medication about potential interactions between the drugs they’re taking. Even with aspirin, if you’re taking a blood thinner for some other reason and you take an aspirin on top of that, you may be increasing your chances of a head bleed without realizing it.”
For more information: