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When Taking OTCs is a Dangerous Prescription


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.