8 Tips for Safely Taking Over-The-Counter Medications

It’s common for people to reach for over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat minor illnesses like headaches, colds, allergies, and upset stomach without seeing a doctor. In fact, according to a 2022 survey, over 80% of adults in the U.S. take OTC medicines. 

While OTC drugs are safe and effective when used as directed, they can also cause harm if misused or abused. Taking OTC meds safely is crucial to avoid complications or dangerous interactions. 

OTC medicines are not without risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 70,000 emergency department visits each year stem from the misuse of OTC cough and cold medications alone. 

Furthermore, OTC pain relievers send over 56,000 people to the ER annually. With self-medication so widespread, consumers must educate themselves on safely using these readily available drugs.

Follow the tips below to take over-the-counter medications safely:

1. Be Wary of Herbal Supplements

The FDA does not regulate herbal remedies and supplements like over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. This means the safety, effectiveness, appropriate dosing, and potential for interactions with other drugs are largely unknown when it comes to herbal products. 

Use extreme caution when taking these types of alternative remedies, as their risks are not fully characterized. Always inform your doctor about any herbal supplements you take so they can screen for possible medication interactions and advise you appropriately. 

It’s best to view herbal products as you would prescription drugs in terms of potential side effects and interactions. Their lack of FDA oversight means extra care should be taken with herbal supplements.

2. Seek Expert Advice

When in doubt about choosing or using over-the-counter (OTC) medications, always consult your pharmacist or doctor for guidance. Specialized places like an apothecary pharmacy often provide an integrative approach, combining traditional medicines with holistic remedies, offering a broader spectrum of advice. 

Make sure to provide them with a complete list of all prescription and OTC drugs, supplements, vitamins, herbs, etc.; that you take so they can screen for potentially dangerous interactions. 

Both pharmacists and physicians can offer recommendations on the most appropriate OTC products for your symptoms based on your health history and medications. 

Their expert advice helps ensure you select and use OTC medicines responsibly, safely, and effectively. Never hesitate to ask for help choosing nonprescription drugs.

3. Avoid Medications with Similar Active Ingredients

It is essential to recognize that many different over-the-counter (OTC) brands and products contain identical active ingredients to treat the same ailments. 

For instance, you might see various OTC medications marketed separately for relieving pain, easing headaches, reducing arthritis discomfort, and soothing muscle aches that all contain the exact same pain-relieving ingredient, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. 

Simultaneously, taking more than one of these products with the same active pain reliever can lead to accidental overdose and severe health risks. 

Always carefully read the active ingredients section on any OTC medication before using it, and avoid taking multiple products with the same ingredients at the same time. Checking labels thoroughly helps prevent medication errors and overdoses.

4. Only Treat Symptoms You Have

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications should only be used to treat symptoms or conditions that you are actually experiencing and not as preventive measures if you do not have any symptoms. For example, decongestants should only be taken if you are experiencing congestion, antihistamines for allergies if you are having allergy symptoms, etc. 

Do not take OTC medicines speculatively to try and prevent potential future symptoms. Only use them when you have the specific symptom described on the medication label. This prevents unnecessary medicine use and reduces possible side effects or complications when medications are taken proactively. 

The best practice is to use OTC drugs only on an as-needed basis for existing symptoms.

5. Read Labels Carefully

It is essential to carefully read the entire drug label before taking any over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pay very close attention to the active ingredients section, as this lists the main drugs in the product that serve a medical purpose. 

Also closely examine the uses section, which describes what symptoms or conditions the medication treats, along with all warnings, precautions, dosing instructions, safety information, potential side effects, and possible drug or food interactions. 

Never exceed the recommended dose listed on the label or take the medication longer than the duration indicated. With multi-symptom products designed to treat various cold, flu, allergy, or pain symptoms, diligently check that you are not unintentionally getting duplicate doses of the same active ingredients by taking more than one product at the same time. 

Reading labels in their entirety allows you to use OTC medicines safely and effectively.

6. Consider Allergies and Other Conditions

If you have any ongoing medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, thyroid disorders, or others, you should always consult your physician before taking any new over-the-counter (OTC) medications. 

Certain active ingredients in OTC products can exacerbate underlying conditions. 

People with known allergies should also use extreme caution, as antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers often provoke allergic reactions in those susceptible. Carefully read all allergy warnings on medication labels to avoid products with ingredients you could be allergic to. 

Having open communication with your doctor ensures OTC meds are safe for your health status.

7. Check for Drug Interactions

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines have the potential to interact with prescription medications, other OTC products, certain foods/beverages, and dietary supplements. These interactions can make medications less effective, increase the risk of side effects or adverse reactions, or even cause dangerous health complications in some cases. 

Always inform your pharmacist about every OTC and prescription med, supplement, vitamin, mineral, herb, etc. that you take so they can screen for problematic interactions. Pharmacists are medication experts who can alert your doctor if any interactions are found and recommend alternative options as needed.

8. Follow Dosing Guidelines

It is extremely important to never exceed the recommended dose listed on the label when taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, especially for children. Always carefully and precisely measure liquid medication doses, only using the dosing device included with that specific product. 

Also, pay close attention to how often or how many times per day you can safely take a medication. Some OTCs are meant for multiple doses per day, while others should only be taken every 4-6 hours. 

Closely following dosing instructions reduces your risk of accidental overdose and maximizes the safe, effective use of OTC medicines.


Over-the-counter medications offer accessible, effective relief for minor health complaints when used correctly. However, they can pose safety risks if consumers don’t heed label instructions and exercise appropriate caution. 

Following these simple tips can help you avoid complications and safely treat common symptoms with OTC medicines. When used responsibly, readily available drugs can be a convenient first line of defense for minor illnesses.

Leave a Comment