What your over-the-counter drugs can do to you


When you begin taking a new prescription medication, you are likely to check the drug information to understand any side effects or interactions it may have.

Over-the-counter drugs, on the other hand, may not get the same level of scrutiny from the average user. Consumers frequently turn to these medications for relief, with an estimated 81 percent of people choosing an over-the-counter medication first. But these common drugs can have surprising side effects if consumers use them incorrectly.

“Everyone should consider the risks when taking any medication, and elderly individuals should take extra precautions,” says Dan Bushnell, administrator at Gramercy Court Assisted Living. “Medications can affect older people differently because of factors like a changing metabolism, and over-the-counter drugs can interact with existing prescriptions.”

After years of using common medications for anything from minor injuries to a stuffy nose, it can be easy to take a few pills without much thought to dosage. Despite the relative safety of over-the-counter medicines, it is important to know the adverse reactions you can face by taking too much or failing to look at the ingredients.

Here are some side effects you may not expect from everyday medications. Remember to consult your doctor if you are planning to take any medications.


Acetaminophen is commonly used for pain relief and fever reduction. Although this medication is safe when used as directed, it can cause liver damage if used for an extended period of time or if too much is used. Acetaminophen is included in many different combination medications, so it is important to read the label and know how much total acetaminophen you are consuming to avoid an overdose.


Unlike acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen can cause stomach pain. These medications can also cause nausea, dizziness, balance problems, and raised blood pressure. People on blood pressure medication need to consult a physician before using NSAIDs.


Aspirin is an NSAID and can have the same side effects, but it also has some unique considerations consumers should know about. Aspirin can help prevent blood clots, so anyone taking this medication should tell their doctor before having any kind of surgery. It can also be easy to double up with another NSAID if you are taking aspirin to prevent blood clots. Talk to your doctor before taking any other NSAID if you are using aspirin.


Like NSAIDs, decongestants can cause an increase in blood pressure, especially an immediate-release decongestant. They can be dangerous for people with diabetes, heart problems, or other conditions that can be affected by raised blood pressure. Surprisingly, decongestants can also have a reverse effect if they are used for an extended period. If a nasal decongestant is used for several days, it could actually cause worse congestion.


When used correctly, antihistamines are safe, but taking too many could cause serious side effects. An overdose of sedating antihistamines could lead to a seizure, and too much of a non-sedating antihistamine can speed up your heart rate. Never take more than the indicated dose, and check other medications you are taking to ensure they do not also contain antihistamines.

Over-the-counter medications are safe for most people to take, as long as they are taken as they are intended. No matter how familiar you think you are with these common medications, be sure to always read the labels and know the side effects before you take them.

A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.


About Author

I am the Founder of Stage Marketing and specialize in healthcare marketing. My doctorate is in communication, which means that I draw from the areas of psychology, sociology, and the humanities to understand the emotional and spiritual side of health.

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