As a physician, I am often asked what my favorite over-the-counter (OTC) medications are. I also often suggest OTC medications to my patients for various ailments and illnesses. In general, I am not a huge fan of medications unless they are truly indicated. In my practice, I try to focus on prevention of chronic diseases by healthy lifestyle choices. But, there are some people who, regardless of their healthy lifestyle, will go on to develop diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, or more common illnesses like the common cold or a sore back. In these situations, sometimes there is nothing for it but the miracle of modern medicines! Let’s face it, there is nothing more miserable than a bad headache, stomach trouble, or a bad cold! It’s important to know what you can do to help yourself, and you might even save yourself a visit to someone like me! Below you will find some of the OTC medications that I recommend almost daily to my patients, and that I keep in my own medicine cabinet (or closet, which is a better place to store medicines due to the cool dry climate). I should also note that in the picture above, you will see a combination of brand name and generic medications, but for all OTC medications the generic alternative is perfectly acceptable and usually much cheaper!
Treating the common cold:
The common cold is probably the most common illness we see in primary care offices and urgent care centers. The common cold is caused by a host of different viruses, and does not respond to antibiotics. Therefore, your best bet is to treat the symptoms. Delsym cough syrup (dextromethorphan) is a great cough suppressant. Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) is a great decongestant. You have to go up to the pharmacy counter and ask for it, as they do not keep it in the pharmacy aisles. Afrin (phenylephrine) nasal spray is fantastic for temporary relief of nasal congestion. You need to use some caution with this one, and don’t use it for more than three days in a row. If used daily it can cause rebound congestion. Aches, pains, and fevers associated with the common cold are best treated with Advil, Motrin (ibuprofen), or Tylenol (acetaminophen). Hot steam showers are also great. We can’t forget plain old honey, which is a great remedy for common cold symptoms. This is also safe for kids, who can’t take some of the above medications. There is a lot of research showing that a teaspoon of honey works great for sore throats, coughs, and probably has some natural antimicrobial properties. For common cold symptoms that are not improving after 10 days, you should think about calling your doctor to be evaluated.
Stomach and bowel troubles:
These are also a very common reason for visits to the doctor! Problems like indigestion and heartburn are usually easy to manage on your own. No one ever wants to talk about it, but diarrhea, constipation, and (gasp!) gas are also equally common, and easy to manage! Never worry about bringing these up with your doctor, I always tell my patients that no matter how embarrassing they think their problem is, I can guarantee you I’ve heard worse! For indigestion and heartburn, Tums (calcium carbonate) works very well. If you are having more of a frequent problem with indigestion something like Pepcid (famotidine) can be taken daily, although I would caution you that persistent indigestion should be evaluated by your doctor. Pepto Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) is an old medication that treats a variety of different stomach and bowel ailments. Constipation is easily managed with a safe stool softener like Colace (docusate) or Miralax (polyethylene glycol). Gas-X (simethicone) is a fantastic treatment for gas. Immodium (loperamide) is helpful for diarrhea symptoms. I would like to point out that with stomach and bowel problems, thinking about the cause is very important. Are there certain foods that are causing a problem? Consider keeping a food diary to see if you can find a link between certain foods and your symptoms. And if any of these symptoms are not getting better with simple remedies, it’s time to call your doctor!
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is the mainstay of treatment for any allergic reaction. It can be combined with Pepcid (famotidine) for even better coverage of allergic reactions (both are actually antihistamines!). Seasonal allergies are best treated with nasal sprays like Flonase (fluticasone) which are widely available OTC now. Allegra (fexofenadine) is also helpful.
Aches and pains:
Tylenol (acetaminophen) is great for treating headaches. Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen) is great for musculoskeletal problems like joint or back pain. These are both useful for bringing down fevers as well.
I always have a few other medications on hand in my closet. Hydrocortisone cream 1% treats a variety of skin rashes and helps with itch. A topical antifungal cream like Lotrimin (clotrimazole 1%)is also useful for many conditions including athlete’s foot and yeast infections. Debrox (carbamide peroxide) is a great treatment for ear wax buildup.
Well, there you have it! So, get out there and stock your medicine cabinets! These remedies are certain to help alleviate minor illnesses and symptoms, and may save you a visit to the doctor! Happy to answer any questions if you comment below! Stay tuned for part two of my “stock your medicine cabinet” series regarding first aid and wound care!
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