6 Mistakes to Avoid if You’re Taking OTC Painkillers

Get a pharmacist’s insight on what you should and shouldn't do when taking over-the-counter painkillers.

Lori Murray
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We asked pharmacist Wally Patel, part owner of Tucker Pharmacy in Hoboken, NJ, to tell us what folks often do wrong when taking over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers. Read on for his insight, and remember to always tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist what OTC products you take.

Mistake #1: Using the wrong product.
“This is the most common mistake we see,” says Patel. “Someone calls and says, ‘I took something but still have pain.’ Then I find out the person has sciatica [nerve pain], which the product isn’t meant to treat.” 

The fix: Discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. You may find out you can get better relief with a different medication.

Mistake #2: Not checking label warnings.
It’s the first section you should read, says Patel. “You’ll find allergy info and drug or alcohol interactions. It lets you know when not to take the drug.”

The fix: Drug info is sometimes updated, so check the label on every box you buy—especially if you’ve received a new diagnosis or have recently been prescribed a new medication.

Mistake #3: Taking too small a dose.
You know you shouldn’t take too much of an OTC painkiller. But you may not be taking enough. If your doctor says to take two ibuprofen, don’t take just one, since the dose is based on factors such as your weight and how fast the drug works.

The fix: Ask your healthcare provider for specifics. Consider saying: “So, to relieve joint pain, I should take two ibuprofen tablets every six hours, right? What if the pain doesn’t go away?”

Mistake #4: Not eating.
If the label says to take a medication with food, there’s a reason for it. “People call because they think they’re having side effects. They’ll say, ‘It gave me diarrhea’ or ‘I have a stomachache,’” notes Patel. “Then I’ll ask, ‘Did you take it with food?’ and find out they haven’t.”

The fix: Try pairing doses with your meals (keep the bottle on the kitchen counter or table).

Mistake #5: Using the wrong form.
A general rule of thumb: Liquids and liquid-gels usually relieve pain more quickly because they’re digested faster. But they may leave your body quickly, too. Other fast-acting forms are chewable and rapid-release tablets. Capsules, hard tablets and caplets take effect a bit more slowly.

The fix: Ask your pharmacist for help. Also, find out which strength (regular or extra) is best for you.

Mistake #6: Ignoring the expiration date.
“The date is based on testing by the manufacturer,” explains Patel. “After that, the drug starts to break down and the maker doesn’t know if it will work because the decomposed molecules haven’t been tested.”

The fix: Throw away expired meds. Ask your pharmacist how to dispose of unused products.



May 2013