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Nonprescription Medications and Products

Antacids and Acid Blockers - Bulking Agents and Laxatives - Antidiarrheals - Cold and Allergy Remedies - Decongestants - Cough Preparations - Antihistamines - Pain Relievers - Aspirin

A nonprescription medication (sometimes called an over-the-counter or OTC medication) is any drug that you can buy without a doctor's prescription. However, don't assume that all nonprescription drugs are safe for you. These drugs can interact with other medications and can sometimes cause serious health problems.

Some medications should only be used by adults or older children. Be sure to read the package instructions carefully, or ask a pharmacist before giving any product to an infant or young child.

Carefully read the label of any nonprescription drug you use, especially if you also take prescription medications for other health problems. Ask your pharmacist for help in finding a nonprescription drug best suited to your needs.

Some common nonprescription medications include:

These drugs can be very helpful when used properly but can also cause serious problems if used incorrectly. The following tips will help you use common nonprescription drugs wisely and safely. In some cases, you may find that you don't need to take them at all.

Antacids and Acid Blockers

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Antacids are taken to relieve heartburn or indigestion caused by excess stomach acid. While they are safe if used occasionally, antacids may cause problems if taken regularly. There are several kinds of antacids. Learn what ingredients are in each type so you can avoid any adverse effects.

Bulking Agents and Laxatives

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There are 2 types of products to prevent or treat constipation: bulking agents and laxatives.

Bulking agents , such as bran or psyllium (found in Metamucil, for example), are not laxatives, but they ease constipation by increasing the volume of stool and making it easier to pass. Regular use of bulking agents is safe and helps make them more effective.

Laxatives (such as Correctol, Ex-Lax, Senokot, and Dulcolax) speed up the passage of stool by irritating the lining of the intestines. Regular laxative use is not recommended.

There are many other ways to treat constipation, such as drinking more water. See Constipation.


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There are 2 types of antidiarrheal drugs: those that thicken the stool and those that slow intestinal spasms.

The thickening mixtures (such as Kaopectate) contain clay or fruit pectin and absorb bacteria and toxins in the intestine. They are safe because they do not go into the blood, but these products also absorb the bacteria needed for digestion. Long-term use is not advised.

Antispasmodic antidiarrheal products slow the spasms of the intestine. Loperamide (the active ingredient in products such as Imodium) is an example of this type of preparation. Some products (such as Donnagel) contain both thickening and antispasmodic ingredients.

Cold and Allergy Remedies

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In general, whether you take drugs or not for your cold, you'll get better in about 1 week. Rest and liquids are probably the best treatment for a cold (See Colds). Antibiotics will not help. However, medications help relieve some cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion and cough.

Allergy symptoms, especially runny nose, often respond to antihistamines. Antihistamines are also found in many cold medications, often together with a decongestant. However, the value of antihistamines in treating cold symptoms is under debate.


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Decongestants make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose, allowing air to pass through. They also help relieve runny nose and postnasal drip, which can cause a sore throat.

Decongestants can be taken orally or used as nose drops or sprays. Oral decongestants (pills) are probably more effective and provide longer relief, but they cause more side effects. Pseudoephedrine (the active ingredient in products such as Sudafed) is an oral decongestant.

Sprays and drops provide rapid but temporary relief. Nasal sprays containing xylometazoline (such as Otrivin) are effective. Sprays and drops are less likely to interact with other drugs than oral decongestants are.

Cough Preparations

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Coughing is your body's way of getting foreign substances and mucus out of your respiratory tract. Coughs are often useful, and you shouldn't try to eliminate them. Sometimes, though, coughs are severe enough to impair breathing or prevent rest.

Water and other liquids, such as fruit juices, are probably the best cough syrups. They help soothe the throat and also moisten and thin mucus so it can be coughed up more easily.

Saline Nose Drops

Nonprescription saline nasal sprays (such as Salinex) are convenient, inexpensive, and sterile. They will keep nasal tissues moist so the tissues can filter the air. Saline nasal sprays will not cause mucous membranes in the nose to swell.

Saline nose drops can also be easily made at home. Mix 1.5 ml (0.25 tsp) salt in 240 ml ( 1 cup) of body temperature water (too much salt will dry nasal membranes). Place the solution in a clean bottle with a dropper (available at drugstores). Use as necessary. Make a fresh solution every 3 days.

Insert the drops while lying on your back on a bed, with your head hanging over the side. This will help the drops get farther back. Try to keep the dropper from touching your nose.

You can make a simple and soothing cough syrup at home by mixing 1 part lemon juice with 2 parts honey. Use as often as needed. This can be given to children older than 1 year of age. Also See Pneumonia.

There are 2 kinds of cough medicines: expectorants and suppressants. Expectorants help thin the mucus and make it easier to cough mucus up when you have a productive cough. Look for expectorants containing guaifenesin, such as Robitussin, Benylin-E, and Vicks 44E.

Suppressants control or suppress the cough reflex and work best for a dry, hacking cough that keeps you awake. Look for suppressant medications containing dextro-methorphan, such as Delsym, Robitussin-DM, or Benylin-DM.

Don't suppress a productive cough too much (unless it is keeping you from getting enough rest).


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Antihistamines dry up nasal secretions and are commonly used to treat allergy symptoms and itching.

If your runny nose is caused by allergies, an antihistamine will help. For cold symptoms, Home Treatment and perhaps a decongestant (See Decongestants) will probably be more helpful. It is usually best to take only single-ingredient allergy or cold preparations, instead of those containing many active ingredients.

Products such as Chlor-Tripolon (chlorpheniramine) and Benadryl (diphenhydramine) are single- ingredient antihistamine products.

Products such as Dristan, Coricidin, and Triaminic contain both a decongestant and an antihistamine.

Pain Relievers

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There are dozens of pain reliever products. Most contain either aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These 3 drugs relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin and ibuprofen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

When purchasing pain relievers, keep in mind that generic products are chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually work equally well.


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Aspirin (ASA) is widely used for relieving pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces swelling and inflammation. Most tablets contain 325 mg of aspirin . Although it seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug.

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