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Use Non-Prescription Medications Safely

A person holds a variety of over-the-counter pills and capsules in their foil and plastic packaging.

Prescription medications are not the only drugs that can harm you. Non-prescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), medications are medicines that are sold directly to the consumer and do not require a prescription from a health care provider. Some can be purchased from the retail floor, while others may require the buyer to ask for assistance at the pharmacy counter. The Federal Trade Commission requires all non-prescription medications to be labeled with an approved Drug Facts label to educate consumers.

Many older adults are hospitalized because of problems related to non-prescription (or over-the-counter) pills, liquids, medicated creams, lotions and other formulations. Non-prescription medications often contain the same or similar ingredients as many prescription drugs. In fact, most non-prescription medicines required a prescription to purchase at one time in the past. Non-prescription medicines should be treated with the same care and respect as prescription medications.

  • Tell your health care provider about all the prescription and non-prescription medicines you take. Since many non-prescription medications contain the same ingredients or have the same effects as prescription medications you are taking, taking them together can amplify these effects and cause problems.
  • Read the Drug Facts label on non-prescription packaging and follow the instructions exactly. If you’ve been taking non-prescription medications (including common pain and allergy remedies) for a long time, read the label to make sure you are still taking them according to manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Certain medical conditions (such as high blood pressure or asthma) can make some common non-prescription medications unsafe for you to take. If your health care professional diagnoses you with a new condition, ask if any of the non-prescription medications you take could be a problem.
  • Pick non-prescription medications that treat only the symptoms you have and contain only the ingredients you need. Avoid multi-symptom remedies unless otherwise directed by your health care professional or pharmacist.
  • Non-prescription medications are usually intended for short-term use. If your symptoms don’t go away within a reasonable time, or worsen, talk to your health care provider.

Disclaimer: The information on this page is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or instruction from a health care professional. Always take medication as prescribed or according to manufacturer's instructions. Consult with your doctor, pharmacist or other health care provider before changing your medication habits.