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Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-Counter Medications

Understanding the Benefits and Risks Involved

There's a common misconception that if a drug is available "over the counter" (OTC), it must be safe and without serious side effects. That's simply not true. While, as a general rule, OTC drugs present less risk, all drugs can cause problems if not taken properly, in the correct dosages, or based on appropriate screening to prevent side effects.

The fundamental differences between a prescription drug and OTC medication are twofold:

  • Prescription drugs are intended for use by one person; OTC drugs may be used by anyone and are commonly shared.
  • Prescription drugs are intended to treat a specific condition diagnosed by a licensed medical professional; OTC pharmaceutical products may be recommended by a doctor, but require no prescription and are often used to treat a variety of symptoms, many of which are self-diagnosed.

Both prescription and OTC drugs are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). OTC products are typically based on a formula and require FDA approval of only labeling and dosage.

OTC drugs can carry the potential for addiction and have serious side effects:

  • Many OTC cough medications have the potential to produce hallucinations or a "high" when taken in large doses or on a frequent basis. One of the most common is dextromethorphan, or DXM, found in many cough suppressants. Ingestion of too much DXM can cause drowsiness, blacking out, breathing problems, heart palpitations, muscle twitches, and even brain damage.
  • Cold medicines typically contain pseudoephedrine as an active ingredient. Pseudoephedrine is a powerful stimulant (it can be used to manufacture meth) that can lead to high blood pressure, seizures, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeat.
  • Another common OTC medication, dimenhydrinate, is often recommended for vertigo or motion sickness, but it has psychedelic effects, causing hallucinations, seizures, nausea, and even death.

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