For common minor symptoms and illnesses, you can buy over-the-counter medicines at a store without a prescription from your health care provider.
Important tips for using over-the-counter medications:
Women should consult their doctor before taking over-the-counter medicines while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Any drug or medicine may have a different effect in children and older adults. People who are in these age groups should take special care when taking over-the-counter medicines.
Below are some examples of over-the-counter medicines for common symptoms. This list does not include every medicine. It also does not mean that some of the brands listed are better than others. Many of these medicines have less expensive store brands.
Always call your health care provider first if:
ACHES, PAINS, AND HEADACHES
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with your headache, arthritis pain, sprains, and other minor joint and muscle problems.
Both NSAIDs and acetaminophen can cause serious side effects when taken in high doses or for a long time. If you are taking pain relievers several days a week, tell your doctor. You may need to be watched for side effects.
People who need to take pain medications for headaches 3 or more days a week may get rebound headaches.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help reduce fever in children and adults.
Aspirin works very well for treating fever in adults. DO NOT give aspirin to a child unless your child's doctor tells you to give it.COLD, SORE THROAT, COUGH
Over-the-counter cold remedies may help ease your symptoms. They won't shorten the length of a cold, but they can help you feel better.
NOTE: Medical experts do not recommend using cough and cold drugs in children under age 6. Talk to your doctor before your child takes any type of over-the-counter cold medicine, even if it is labeled for children. These medicines likely will not work in children, and they may have serious side effects.
Cough medicines include:
Decongestant pills and liquids help clear a runny nose and relieve postnasal drip:
Nasal spray decongestants may also help with a runny nose:
Starting to take zinc supplements within 24 hours after cold symptoms begin may shorten the duration of cold symptoms and make the symptoms less severe.
Sore throat may be treated with:
Antihistamine pills and liquids work well for treating allergy symptoms.
You can also try:
Be careful when taking over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicines such as loperamide (Imodium). Talk to your doctor first. These drugs can worsen diarrhea that is caused by infections.
Medicines that contain bismuth (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol) may be taken for mild diarrhea. Rehydration fluids you can buy at a drugstore (Enfalyte or Pedialyte) may be used for moderate and severe diarrhea.
NAUSEA AND VOMITING
Emetrol and Pepto-Bismol may relieve mild nausea and vomiting. Rehydration fluids you can buy at a drugstore (Enfalyte or Pedialyte) may help replace fluids.
You can help motion sickness with dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or meclizine (Bonine, Antivert, Postafen, and Sea Legs).
SKIN RASHES AND ITCHING
Antihistamines taken by mouth may help with itching or if you have allergies. Often you can buy them without a prescription.
Hydrocortisone cream (Cortaid, Cortizone 10) may work for mild rashes.
Diaper rashes caused by yeast may be treated with topical antifungal skin creams and ointments, such as nystatin, miconazole, clotrimazole, and ketaconazole.
Medications to have at home
Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Feb 16;2:CD001364.
Simasek M, Blandino DA. Treatment of the common cold. Am Fam Physician. Feb 2007;75(4):515-520.
Semrad CE, Powell DW. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 143.
Boes CJ, Capobianco DJ, Cutrer FM, et al. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 73.
Atopic dermatitis. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 5.
Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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