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OTC Medications: Understanding the Risks

You don't need a health care provider's prescription to buy over-the-counter (OTC) medications. But this doesn’t mean they are risk-free. It’s just as important to carefully follow instructions when taking OTC drugs as it is when you take prescribed medication.

Some OTC medications pose risks for people with certain medical conditions and for pregnant women. Some drugs can cause reactions when mixed with other medications or certain foods or drinks. You may face other risks if you:

  • Take too much medication

  • Use the medication for too long a period of time

  • Use the medication in the wrong way

Here's what you need to know about the most common types of OTC medicines.

Pain relievers

OTC pain relievers are typically used for mild pain or fever. Acetaminophen is 1 active ingredient in common pain relievers. Other pain relievers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, include:

  • Aspirin

  • Ibuprofen

  • Naproxen sodium

These drugs are generally safe and free of side effects. If not correctly, they can cause the following problems:

  • Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

  • Ibuprofen and naproxen can cause kidney damage or stomach bleeding in certain situations.

  • Aspirin increases the risk for an illness called Reye syndrome in children and teens with fever or the flu.


Most problems caused by laxatives are because of overuse. Generally, OTC laxatives are not recommended for people with mild constipation. If you have long-term constipation, your health care provider may recommend a laxative for a short period of time.

If you use a laxative often, you may become dependent on laxatives to have a bowel movement. You may also need to take more and more laxatives to get the same results.

Heartburn remedies

Traditional OTC drugs for heartburn are antacids with familiar household names. They work by canceling the effects of acid in the stomach. Newer remedies, such as H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors, stop the acid from being made.

Traditional antacids are usually made up of a combination of salts. These can cause diarrhea or constipation in some people. They may also keep some prescription medications from being taken into your body. The H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitor drugs usually don’t cause these problems. But, they don't work for everyone. And they can cause reactions with some prescription medications.

Sleep aids

OTC sleep aids don't cause "sleepwalking," as some prescription sleep medicines do. However, they still have risks. Some OTC sleep aids last longer than 8 hours. This means you may still be drowsy after using the drug to sleep through the night.

OTC sleep aids shouldn't be used for more than 2 weeks. Many people don’t follow this rule. Most experts agree that if you still have sleeping problems after 2 weeks, you should see your health care provider.

Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd
Date Last Reviewed: 2/3/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.