The Benefits and Risks of OTC Medications

By Quate, Sue 
March 21, 2017

The Benefits and Risks of OTC Medications

When you have a headache or the sniffles, you may not think twice about reaching for an over-the-counter (OTC) medication to relieve your symptoms.           

OTCs are perceived to be safe because they’re available without a doctor’s prescription. But they can pose serious health risks when used incorrectly, especially by people with preexisting health conditions, such as heart disease.           

“Over-the-counter medications allow consumers to practice self-care, which is important,” says Michael Hogue, Pharm.D., assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the McWhorter School of Pharmacy in Birmingham, Ala. “Problems can arise, however, if people fail to pay close attention to medication warnings and ingredient labels. They should always consult with a pharmacist if they have any questions.”           

Such a consultation reduces your risk of experiencing serious side effects and helps ensure you’re taking the right medication to make you feel better.           

Dr. Hogue warns that people with serious health conditions, especially those with heart disease, high blood pressure, prostate disease, glaucoma or asthma, should pay special attention to warning labels on OTCs and consult their doctors or pharmacists before taking any medication, including vitamins and herbal remedies.           

Dr. Hogue provides the following benefits and risks of some commonly used OTCs.


Benefits: An inexpensive medication used primarily to treat minor aches and pains caused by arthritis or muscle inflammation.

Risks: Can cause stomach irritation when taken in large amounts. It can function as a mild blood thinner, so it’s not recommended for people taking prescription anticoagulants. Nor should it be given to infants and children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome.


Benefits: An anti-inflammatory drug used primarily to treat muscle pains and strains, and headaches.

Risks: Long-term use can cause the stomach lining to deteriorate and ulcers to develop. Take special care if taking prescription anticoagulants.


Benefits: An anti-inflammatory drug used to treat muscle pain and reduce fever.

Risks: People who drink large amounts of alcohol are advised not to take high doses of acetaminophen because the combination can increase the risk for severe liver damage.

Chewable antacid

Benefits: An inexpensive medication containing calcium carbonate to reduce stomach acid and treat minor heartburn and stomach discomfort. Also contains a calcium supplement, which is good for bone-health maintenance.

Risks: Can sometimes mask an ulcer or more serious health condition. See your doctor if you must take antacids for more than three days.


March 21, 2017


Staywell for Life/September 2005

Reviewed By:  

Sylvia ByrdSylvia Byrd RN MBA