The pharmacy aisle can feel like a jungle these days—especially when you’re weeding through pill bottles with watery eyes and Kleenex attached to your face. But just because you’ve got access to every med under the sun doesn’t mean they’re all benign to your body. (In fact, they all come with risks, especially if you’re taking other prescription medications.) We spoke with Maria M. Mantione, pharmacist and director of the doctor of pharmacy program at St. John’s University, about five easy-access pills that deserve an extra warning.
1. Multi-Symptom Products
Cold, cough, and flu combo meds are tempting to buy—odds are there’s something in there that’ll nix your problem, right? Unfortunately for the lazy, it’s a lot safer to isolate your symptoms and treat them one by one, even if it requires some extra label reading. “Most women usually don’t have all five ailments on the bottle, and any medication with multiple ingredients is going to put you at a greater risk for overdosing or interactions,” says Mantione. For example, most multi-symptom meds contain acetaminophen as one of the main ingredients to treat fevers, sore throats, and the like. But popping Tylenol on top of that (also acetaminophen) can cause you to exceed the daily limit for the drug, which can lead to liver damage or even death.
The most popular person in the office is usually the one who keeps a giant-sized bottle of a pain reliever like ibuprofen or naproxen at their desk. When headaches, back pain, or cramps strike, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can save the day. But high doses over long periods of time come with some serious risks: gastrointestinal problems (nausea, constipation) are a common side effect, and more serious complications like ulcers or even kidney failure can occur. The FDA recently adjusted NSAID drug labels to make it super clear the pills come with an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, too. No need to live in pain—just follow the label and see your doc if you’re taking the pills for longer than 10 days.
Swigging some Mylanta after overindulging in a cheesy pizza is no big deal. Neither is taking a two-week course of Prevacid to clear up more frequent heartburn. But Mantione says a number of antacid users take the drugs for longer than recommended on the label without supervision. “Some people take them every day for months on end to treat acid reflux, but if you’re not being monitored by a doctor, the drugs could be covering up a more serious condition,” says Mantione. (It’s rare, but years of heartburn could lead to cancer of the esophagus.)
The newer forms of daily allergy meds (like Claritin or Zyrtec) are generally pretty safe, but old-school antihistamines like Benadryl (formal name: Diphenhydramine) come with some potent side effects (think: drowsiness, confusion, dizziness) and shouldn’t be used during the day or while driving. Diphenhydramine (an ingredient in Tylenol PM) can also enhance the effects of other drugs like muscle relaxants, sleep aids, or anxiety medications, so clear everything with your pharmacist before mixing the two.
This congestion-buster, found behind the pharmacy counter in medication like Sudafed, can usually bring quick and sweet relief to clogged nasal passages. But it comes with a risk of side effects like an increased heart rate, nervousness, and insomnia. Pseudoephedrine can also interact with some blood pressure meds and other stimulants like caffeine, so talk with a doc or pharmacist (especially if you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, or other heart conditions) before bringing this one home.