Over the Counter drug dangers: Surprising Side Effects and Safer Alternatives.

by Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Professional

Medications and health products that can be purchased over-the-counter (OTC) at a pharmacy are assumed to be safe, but these products do carry the risk of side effects and health risks, especially if recommendations are disregarded. The Drug Abuse Warning Network estimates that of the 2.1 million drug abuse emergency room visits, 27.1 percent involved nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals including prescription or OTC medications, and dietary supplements. Many people believe since these products are “over-the-counter,” that makes them safe.

That is not necessarily the case. Many OTC products have potential health risks, including side effects that impact heart health.

Sherry Torkos award winning pharmacist and author of Saving Women's Hearts, has identified some of the most commonly used OTC product categories, some surprising side effects associated with these drugs, and smart alternatives to stay safe.

1) Analgesics : Pain and discomfort from lifting, exercising, leg cramps and everyday life are often treated with over-the-counter analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Up to 70 percent of the population in Western countries use analgesics regularly, primarily for muscle and joint pain. These drugs, while safe for some, can cause serious side effects, such as liver and kidney damage, ringing in the ears, stomach bleeding, rebound headaches, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Safer alternatives include curcumin and products that contain BioCell collagen. Curcumin helps reduce inflammation. BioCell collagen is a clinically studied form of collagen that helps to improve joint health and mobility. It is unique from other collagen products in that it is easily absorbed and gets to the target area. BioCell collagen is also great for the skin and has been shown to improve hydration and reduce wrinkles and fine lines.

2) Decongestants: These drugs are used to relieve congestion due to colds, allergies and sinus/ear pressure when flying. OTC decongestants carry the risk of serious side effects such as racing heart, increased blood pressure, insomnia, thinning of the delicate nasal lining, and worsening of health problems such as glaucoma and prostate disease. A safer way to relieve congestion is to use a nasal wash (neti pot) with essential oils such as eucalyptus to dissolve mucus and moisturize nasal passages. To relieve sinus congestion when flying swallow frequently, chew gum or suck on hard candy and try yawning big. Swallowing or yawning opens the eustachian tube and allows air to flow into or out of the middle ear, keeping the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum equal.

3) Throat Sprays: Commonly used for sore throat, laryngitis and cold symptoms these products often contain an anesthetic ingredient, benzocaine, as well as dyes, which can cause allergic reactions in some people. To soothe a sore throat try a teaspoon of dark honey. Honey contains various nutrients and enzymes that are healing. Honey can also be helpful to calm a cough. It is safe to give to those one year of age and older, but avoid use in those younger than one.

4) Stimulants: People often turn to stimulants to increase energy, but these stimulants (like Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, and others) can be very dangerous – especially for people with medical conditions. Using stimulants can increase blood pressure, and cause palpitations (irregular heart beat), insomnia, and flushing (reddening of the skin). Stimulants should be avoided by those who are stressed – they can increase your response to stress and worsen stress symptoms. Safer alternatives to increase physical and mental energy include green tea and supplements that contain Niagen. Green tea is rich in antioxidants that offer a number of health benefits.

5) Sedatives/Sleep Aids: According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, about 30-40% of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year, and about 10-15 percent of adults say they have chronic insomnia. Stress is one of the primary contributors to poor sleep quality. The active ingredients in most OTC sleep aids are antihistamines, marketed for their side effect, which is drowsiness. However in addition to drowsiness these drugs can also cause next day grogginess, dry mouth, constipation and more. As a safer alternative, try a supplement that contains Suntheanine. Suntheanine is the clinically studied form of the amino acid L-theanine that also promotes calming and relaxation. For those with sleep problems due to shift work or travel, try melatonin. This is a hormone naturally secreted by the brain in response to darkness. Supplement forms can be helpful for improving sleep quality and reducing the time needed to fall asleep.

6) Laxatives: They are one of the most commonly overused/abused classes of OTC drugs. People turn to laxatives not only for relief of constipation but as a means to lose weight. Overuse of laxatives can be dangerous and lead to dehydration, a condition known as “lazy colon” and other problems. Instead of using laxatives, whether for constipation or weight loss, try a good soluble fiber supplement. Soluble fiber, when consumed with fluids, swells in the intestine and works effectively to aid laxation. Plus soluble fiber enhances satiety, making you feel fuller and works well as a weight management aid.

Soluble fiber is also a useful tool to promote lower cholesterol levels. You can learn more in the free e-course How to Lower Cholesterol in 8 Simple Steps at http://lowercholesterolwithlisa.com.

Sherry Torkos, BSc, Phm

Sherry Torkos is a pharmacist, author, certified fitness instructor and health enthusiast who enjoys sharing her passion with others. Sherry graduated with honors from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1992. Since that time she has been practicing holistic pharmacy in the Niagara region of Ontario. Her philosophy of practice is to integrate conventional and complementary therapies to optimize health and prevent disease. Sherry has won several national pharmacy awards for providing excellence in patient care.

As a leading health expert, she has delivered hundreds of lectures to medical professionals and the public. Sherry is frequently interviewed on radio and TV talk shows throughout North America and abroad on health matters.

Sherry has authored 16 books and booklets, including Saving Women’s Hearts, The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, and The Glycemic Index Made Simple.

For more information visit, www.sherrytorkos.com

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Nelson, RD, LN

Lisa Nelson RD, a registered dietitian since 1999, provides step-by-step guidance to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, so you can live life and enjoy your family for years to come. Lisa's passion for health comes from her own family history of heart disease, so she doesn't dispense trendy treatments; Lisa practices what she teaches in her own daily life. Because her own health is the foundation of her expertise, you can trust that Lisa will make it truly possible for you to see dramatic changes in your health, without unrealistic fads or impossibly difficult techniques.