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Seven Tips To Understanding OTC Medicines

Whether you’re taking a specific over-the-counter medication for the first time or comparing brands on the shelf, it is important that you familiarise yourself with the information leaflet that accompanies all medicines.

Graham Anderson of Profmed (2012) says when buying an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, look for the following information on the medication’s packaging or in the accompanying leaflet, to get an idea of what’s inside:

  1. Presentation: These are the physical characteristics of the medication, including colour, shape and markings.
  2. Volume: The physical quantity of the product, including the number of tablets and the volume in millilitres (ml) or weight in grams (g). 
  1. Dose: The amount of medicine to be taken is usually listed for adults and children (with age categories): how much to take, how to take it, how often and for how long it should be taken (USFDA, 2016). If you’re in doubt about the correct dosage for an ailment, chat to your pharmacist or other healthcare practitioner.
  2. Active ingredients: This is the pharmaceutical name of the therapeutic substance in the product – the one that’s responsible for the action of the medicine (USFDA, 2016). You’ll also see the amount of active ingredient per recommended dosage unit, either in ml or microlitres (µI). You need to know the active ingredients to compare brands, or in the case of a hypersensitivity (allergy) or drug interaction with a medicine or supplement you are already taking.
  3. Schedule: According to Essentials (2016), the schedule must appear on the packaging and can range from S0 to S6, increasing in regulatory control as the number gets larger. While S0 (aspirin, vitamins and some topical creams) can be sold in supermarkets, health shops, service stations, pharmacies, and other retailers, S1 upwards must be sold in a pharmacy. S1 and S2 (cold and flu remedies, antihistamines and anti-inflammatories) can be bought without a prescription, as can some S3 medications for certain indications and for a limited duration. In South Africa, a prescription is needed for anything higher than S3.
  4. Expiry date: All medications have expiry dates that must be taken seriously because their strength may change over time. Alternatively, there may be a breakdown in some of the ingredients, with potentially dangerous byproducts.
  5. Storage instructions: Pay special attention to these instructions as ignoring them can destroy the ingredients. Most medicines must be kept in a cool, dry place below 25 degrees Celsius. If a medication must go into the fridge, it will say so.

Other details to look out for:

  1. Approved uses for the medicine; i.e., the symptoms or diseases the product will help to treat or prevent.
  2. The manufacturer of the product, the registration number and the contact details of the holder of the registration certificate.
  3. Precautions and measures to ensure safety in normal usage and in situations of overdose.

Helpful tips

Always remember to look out for special precautions in cases where:

  • The patient is pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • The patient’s age is important (very young or very old).
  • There’s a pre-existing condition such as hypertension or heart disease.
  • There are restrictions relating to alcohol use.
  • The medication can cause drowsiness or impaired concentration.

The manufacturers of OTC medicines sometimes make changes to their products or labelling, so make a point of reading the label and the package insert each time you use a product, even if you’ve bought it before. If you still have questions, ask your pharmacist or other healthcare professional for advice.

Source: Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa. Image: Pixabay

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