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:
Your symptoms are severe
You are not sure what is wrong with you
You have a long-term (chronic) medical condition or you are taking other prescription medications
ACHES, PAINS, AND HEADACHES
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with your headache, arthritis pain, sprains, and other minor joint and muscle problems.
Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) can be used first. Do not take more than 4 grams (4,000 mg) on any one day.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). You can buy some NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, without a prescription.
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. See: Headache for more information about headaches and when to call your doctor.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help reduce fever in children and adults.
Take acetaminophen every 4 - 6 hours. It works by turning down the brain's thermostat.
Take ibuprofen every 6 - 8 hours. DO NOT use ibuprofen in children younger than 6 months. Know how much you or your child weighs before giving ibuprofen.
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.
See: Fever to learn how to treat a fever and when to call the doctor.
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.
Some antihistamines can cause sleepiness. These include: dipenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimetron), brompheniramine (Dimetapp), or clemastine (Tavist). Talk to your doctor before giving these medicines to a child, because they can affect learning. In adults, they may also reduce alertness enough to impair driving.
Newer antihistamines cause little or no sleepiness. Some are available over the counter. These medications include loratadine (Alavert, Claritin, Dimetapp ND), fexofenadine (Allegra), and cetirizine (Zyrtec).
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. See: Nausea and vomiting for more information and when to call the doctor.
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. See: Rashes
Diaper rashes caused by yeast may be treated with topical antifungal skin creams and ointments, such as nystatin, miconazole, clotrimazole, and ketaconazole.
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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.
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.