Meds and you

Updated 04 February 2015

Will over-the-counter medication really help?

We like to believe that there’s a pill for every pain. But many of the over-the-counter medicines we reach for to treat a cold, cough, heartburn or pain simply do not work.


We live in times where we like to believe that there’s an easy and quick fix for everything. And many drug manufacturers make great claims for their products – often unsubstantiated.

As GP visits can be expensive, people often self-diagnose their problems, and then seek relief in over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

This means that many people end up spending a fortune on medicines that don’t really have much of an effect, or simply treat the symptoms and ignore the underlying cause.

Of course a headache tablet or an antihistamine tablet, when really needed, can make a huge difference. But there are many over-the-counter medications that people take which are really not necessary, or even downright dangerous when not taking according to the dosage instructions.

Cold and flu remedies
Most people, when they feel a cold or the flu coming on, make a beeline for the nearest pharmacy, and stock up on cold and flu remedies. Mayo Clinic states the most they can hope for is a bit of symptomatic relief. The remedies will not prevent cold or the flu, and also will not shorten its duration. In fact, if used for too long, some of them can actually make your symptoms worse, and could also have some nasty side effects.

Read: Tips for steering clear of flu

Cough mixtures
There’s no conclusive evidence that cough suppressants or expectorants actually do work, according to Dr Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. He mentions that people expect them to work, and buy them anyway. In some cases, it could be dangerous to suppress coughing as it’s the body’s way of getting rid of excess mucus and other irritants. And when the cough goes away, which might very well have happened anyway, people ascribe it to the cough mixture.


Millions of people take these every day – and yes, they can provide symptomatic relief from heartburn. But long-term use of these can cause its own digestive difficulties, such as diarrhoea and constipation. If you have constant heartburn, it might be a better idea to see a dietician and take a closer look at your diet than to pop another antacid. Just check with your GP first to make sure you don’t have a stomach ulcer.

OTC drugs are, after alcohol and marijuana, the most commonly abused substances in the US, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioid painkillers top the list of abused OTC medicines. Many people fall into the habit of taking painkillers on a regular basis, firstly for real pain, then as a “preventative” step, and after that they become addicted to its pleasurable effects. This means that they’re taking the medicine for another purpose than that for which it was prescribed. Ironically, abuse of opioid painkillers can actually cause headaches.

Test yourself: Are you addicted to painkillers?

Watch this video for alternative solutions to OTC medication:


Many people decide by themselves and with the help of friends, the internet, textbooks, or whatever they can lay their hands on, what’s wrong with them. Self-diagnosis can be extremely dangerous, as it’s often wrong. Self-medication obviously also holds great dangers, especially as you could be taking medicines that affect the working of your existing prescription medicines. It’s always better to see a doctor if you think there’s something seriously wrong with you. Medical tests will provided a definite answer.

Read more:
Over-the-counter drugs or antibiotics?
Take care with over-the-counter medication
Over-the-counter and prescription drug abuse


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