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OTC cold meds can be hazardous

November 13, 2014
by Sandra Hoban, Managing Editor
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When a cold strikes, all a person looks for is relief. How many of us actually read the label of over-the-counter (OTC) medication? While these cold products are readily available, they are not interchangeable. Some of these OTC remedies might cause adverse effects if used improperly.

A recent article in the Harvard Health Letter advises cold sufferers to read the active ingredient lists on the package. Seniors are advised to be particularly vigilant when purchasing antihistamines because they do not metabolize well and may linger in the system, causing falls and confusion. Taking another or extra dose can worsen these conditions.

The list of OTC medications to watch isn’t limited to antihistamines only. Use caution when purchasing OTC decongestants, acetaminophen and combination medications, which are designed to treat a variety of symptoms.

While decongestants help to reduce inflammation in the nasal passages, they can, however, increase blood pressure. They are not recommended for people with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or angina.

Since acetaminophen is an active ingredient in many OTC cold remedies, caution should be used to ensure that too much (more than 3,000 to 4,000 mg/day) acetaminophen is not being taken. Taking more than the maximum recommendation of this ingredient can cause liver damage.

Combination OTC medications blend two to four medications to relieve a variety of symptoms that the individual might not be experiencing, which can expose the user to side effects.

“Treating symptoms you don’t have exposes you to medicine you don’t need, and that puts you at risk for possible side effects unnecessarily,” Laura Carr, PharmD, at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a Harvard Health Letter release.

If you are unsure if the OTC medication you selected is right for you, ask the pharmacist. Are you diabetic? Do you have high blood pressure? What is your regular drug profile?  This is important information to provide your health professional to prevent adverse events.

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