Experts report more people misusing over-the-counter drugs

While over-the-counter drugs are safe and effective when used correctly, experts say many Americans are overusing or misusing them with potentially dangerous consequences.

Anita Brikman educates consumers about the safe use of over-the-counter medications that treat ailments including allergies, fever, cold, flu and pain.

"They're a first line of defense from minor to moderate symptoms, and they're used safely and effectively by millions of Americans," Brikman said.

Headache pain specialist Dr. David Dodick says over-the-counter medications are an important tool, but his research shows a problem.

"My colleagues and I recently completed a population-based study across the United States and found that amongst patients who had at least one headache within the past 30 days, 15 percent overused these over-the-counter analgesics," Dodick said.

It's not just headache patients, Dodick says. The perception for some is that anything you can buy without a prescription isn't really a drug. He also says that for people with certain risk factors, overuse and misuse of certain OTC pain relievers can potentially lead to gastrointestinal problems including ulcers, kidney disease and that's not all.

"We know now all of them increase the risk significantly of myocardial infarction or having a heart attack and stroke," Dodick said.

Dodick added that when it comes to OTC pain relievers, he isn't worried about addiction, but he has seen frequent-headache sufferers slip into a habit of taking the medications before an event in anticipation of getting a headache.

"There is a habituation where the habit-forming, they take the medication and think nothing of taking the medication at the slightest sign of pain," Dodick said.

Three-quarters of primary care physicians recommend over-the-counter medications before a prescription. Brikman stresses the way to avoid possible misuse is to follow the drug facts label closely every time.

"It has all the information you need: how often you should take this medicine, how much you should take and, very importantly, when you should stop and consult a healthcare provider," Brikman said.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate over-the-counter medications like prescriptions, although OTCs do have to prove safety and efficacy, and the FDA does regulate the labeling.
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