When people are ill, often times they are able to seek relief from medications available at their local pharmacy without having to visit a physician for prescription medicine. Typically, the conditions are minor and not life threatening. People use nonprescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), drugs to treat less serious conditions that are either transient (will pass relatively quickly), such as the common cold, or chronic (lasting for a long time or recurring frequently), such as allergies.
There are over 100 thousand different OTC drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies these drugs in over eighty categories such as allergy and cough/cold medications, pain relievers, aids for digestive problems, stimulants, sleep aids, and antibacterial drugs. There are also herbal remedies, which are not regulated by the FDA and which may or may not be effective at treating ailments.
Even though a drug is OTC rather than prescription, it can still have side effects. In fact, many OTC drugs have drug interactions with prescriptions and other OTC drugs. Interactions usually cause one of the drugs to work less effectively, but they can also have dangerous, even deadly, results. In fact, there are many OTC drugs that can aggravate certain medical conditions. In this and similar cases, that particular OTC drug should be avoided altogether. Furthermore, due to certain ingredients or for other reasons, many OTC drugs should be used only by adults and older children (generally over the age of twelve), unless it is a formula made especially for younger children. This is why the use of OTC drugs requires a careful reading of a drug's label and instructions so that a consumer will have a full understanding of the drug and its proper uses. If a person doesn't understand something on the package label, a pharmacist can usually help.
This chapter presents the most common OTC drugs, from pain relievers such as acetaminophen and aspirin, to cold and flu remedies, to more controversial remedies such as sleep aids and weight loss aids.