When Taking OTCs is a Dangerous Prescription
We all have battled some sort of backache, headache, or knee pain in our
lives and most of us simply pop a few over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
to ease the discomfort we are feeling. Doing that seems harmless enough,
right? After all, we think, ‘if it’s sold at the local grocery
store it must be safe.’
As a neurologist and pain management specialist, I am seeing an alarming
trend amongst people who think that buying and taking a variety of OTC
pain relievers is a safe and effective way to alleviate their pain –
faster. For many, the thought is that if one pill helps a little, two
must surely help a little more and maybe three will help even more than
that. This thought process, though well-intentioned, can quickly turn
into a dangerous prescription.
In a recent radio interview, I was asked about about an important survey
conducted by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). The AGA
surveyed more than 1,000 adults and 250 gastroenterologists about OTC
medicine practices. The results were sobering. The results showed that
people who take OTC medications for chronic pain often mix the medicines
with other drugs, view label instructions simply as ‘general suggestions,’
are unable to recognize signs of an overdose, and fail to mention their
OTC medication usage in conversations with their doctors.
Here are several of the critical mistakes made about aspirin, ibuprofen
and other OTC pain medicines, according to the survey.
Mistake #1: Ignoring Drug Labels
Two-thirds of people surveyed admitted to not reading the full Drug Facts
label on an OTC pain medicine that they haven't previously taken.
Forty-three percent said they believe that directions on the labels of
OTC pain medicine are only general suggestions for use and will tailor
their dosage to what they feel they need for relief.
More than one quarter of chronic pain sufferers said they are willing to
take more of an OTC pain medicine than directed because they believe it
will provide faster and stronger relief. This mistake can be a deadly
one because it places the user at risk for serious side effects from a
potential overdose, including liver damage, ulcers and even death.
Mistake #2: Not Telling Your Doctor
Some patients experiencing chronic pain try to manage it on their own without
consulting a doctor. This mistake is one that I encounter often while
seeing patients. It’s not necessarily that they are intentionally
trying to abuse these OTCs. They simply think they can ‘handle it’
and save time out of their busy day by not talking to their doctor about
what they’re taking. My advice – be safe and take the time
to consult your physician. Think about this – taking an hour out
of your day is better than taking years off your life. From herbal supplements
to vitamins and even OTCs, your doctor should have a complete and clear
picture of everything you’re taking in.
Mistake #3: Not Recognizing Overdose Symptoms
Self-medicating should not be taken lightly. Almost every OTC pain reliever
warns that for whatever ailment you are taking the medication, if for
an extended period of time you should always consult your doctor. However,
many users make matters worse by taking a higher dose for a longer period
of time which can lead to a drug overdose. Despite this fact, the survey
found that chronic pain sufferers often don't connect the overdose
symptoms to the OTC pain medicines they're taking and wait too long
to seek care for the side effects.
Mistake #4: Mixing OTC Pain Medicines
The survey also found that 79 percent of individuals who have taken OTC
pain medicine in the past year are also simultaneously taking a
multi-symptom OTC medicine for allergies, cold or flu symptoms. This significantly
increases the risk of adverse effects especially in people with heart
disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and kidney or liver problems
adverse side effects.
Finding a Solution
We have all either heard or read that great phrase – ‘Knowledge
is Power’ – and its use couldn’t be more appropriate
when discussing this widespread lack of understanding when it comes to
OTC pain medicines. I hope the results of this survey will increase awareness
about potential dangers lurking in most of our medicine cabinets, so we
can avoid unnecessary hospitalizations and even accidental deaths. Play
it safe my friends – take time to read these labels and ask your
physician questions about any medication you’re considering. Your
life really does depend on it.