HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

Table of Contents

 Section II–Playing It Safe Caution

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Over-the-Counter Medication Safety

bullet Read warning sections on labels or look up the name of the medicine in the Physician’s Desk Reference for Nonprescription Drugs. If you are unsure about taking an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, check with your health care provider or pharmacist. Find out if it is safe to combine medicines (prescribed or OTC ones), to take alcohol with a medicine, or to take OTC herbs, such as kava kava and St. John’s Wort with medicines and/or alcohol.
bullet Before you take a medicine, check the expiration date. Discard ones that have expired.
bullet Know what medications you are allergic to. Check the labels on all OTC medicines to see if what you are allergic to is in them. Also, wear a medical alert tag to let others know about allergies to medications as well as medical conditions you have. Get a medical alert tag from a drugstore or from MedicAlert Foundation International, 800.344.3226,
bullet Do not take OTC medicines on a regular basis unless your health care provider tells you to.
bullet Don’t take someone else’s prescribed medicines. Don’t take OTC medicines that you are not familiar with or are not in the original product package. Don’t give your prescribed medicine to others.
bullet Follow directions on the medicine’s label. Do not exceed the dose(s) specified. For example, if you take 2 acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) tablets for a headache, don’t take 2 more in 2 hours if the label instructs you to take 2 tablets every 4 to 6 hours. Also, don’t take another pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) or a medicine with acetaminophen, such as Nyquil at the same time or within the same 4 hours of taking acetaminophen. This is too much medicine.
bullet If you are under 19 years of age, do not take aspirin or any medicines that contain salicylates, such as Pepto Bismol, due to its link to Reye’s Syndrome. This is especially true when you have the flu or chicken pox.
bullet If you order prescriptions and OTC medications online, make sure that a registered pharmacist checks for drug interactions. Access for a location that the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has given a verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPDS) seal of approval.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications

Problem OTC Medicine(s) and Supplies Problem Side Effects/Warnings
  • Antihistamine, such as Benadryl Allergy and Chlor-Trimeton

  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed

  • Combination of antihistamine and decongestant, such as Contac, Dimetapp

  • Antihistamines cause drowsiness, agitation, dry mouth, and/ or problems with urinating.

  • Don’t use with alcohol, when operating machines, or when driving. Don’t take with sleeping aids, antianxiety drugs, or antidepressants.

  • Don’t use a decongestant with alcohol or with a lot of caffeine.

Cold and flu symptoms, nasal congestion
  • Saline nasal spray, such as Ocean

  • Cool mist vaporizer in room where you sleep

  • Pain reliever, fever reducer (if needed). See “Pain relief” box below.

  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed

  • Combination pain reliever and decongestant, such as Tylenol Sinus

  • Safe to use saline nasal spray with other medications

  • Don’t combine a decongestant with alcohol or with a lot of caffeine.


  • Use a bulk-forming laxative, such as Metamucil.

  • Avoid stimulant-type ones, such as Ex-Lax.

  • Drink a lot of water with bulk-forming laxatives.

  • Long-term use of stimulant-type can lead to dependence and to muscle weakness due to potassium loss.

Cough (dry)
  • Cough syrup with dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin-DM

  • May cause drowsiness. People with problems passing urine should avoid ones with diphenhydramine.

Cough with mucus

  • Cough syrup or expectorant with guifenesin, such as Robitussin
  • Don’t take with an antihistamine.
Cuts & scrapes (minor)
  • Antiseptics, such as Betadine

  • Adhesive bandages, sterile gauze, first aid tape, scissors

  • Antibiotic cream or ointment, such as Neosporin

  • May result in local allergic reaction
  • Antidiarrheal medicine, such as Kaopectate, Imodium A-D, Pepto Bismol
  • Pepto Bismol can cause black stools. Don’t give Pepto Bismol to anyone under 19 years of age because it contains salicylates, which have been linked to Reye’s Syndrome.
  • Thermometer (digital) and probe covers to measure temperature

  • Fever reducer, pain reliever. (See “Pain relief” below)

  • Mercury thermometers are usually not allowed in dorm rooms.
Fungal infection, such as Athlete’s foot
  • Antifungal preparations, such as Tinactin

  • See pain relievers listed under Pain relief,” below.

  • Excedrin Migraine is FDA approved for migraine headaches.

  • Excedrin Migraine has aspirin so should not be used by anyone under age 19 due to its link to Reye’s Syndrome.


  • Antacids, such as Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, Mylanta, etc.
  • Don’t use for more than 2 weeks without your health care provider’s okay.


  • Oatmeal soaps and bath products, such as Aveeno

  • Hydrocortisone cream, such as Cortaid

  • Hydrocortisone may result in a local allergic reaction. Don’t use on burns or infections or near the eyes.
Menstrual cramps
Muscle aches/pains
  • Heating pad, hot water bottle, heat pack, or cold pack (for swelling)

  • Midol, etc.. Relief of minor aches and pains, temporary water weight gain, bloating, swelling, “full” feeling, cramps and emotional changes associated with menstrual periods.

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, etc.). Ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis KT), and Naproxen (Aleve)

  • Midol, etc., can cause drowsiness. Don’t use with alcohol or sedatives.

  • See side effects/warnings box in “Pain relief,” below.


Pain relievers
  • Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol (Does not reduce inflammation.)
  • Is gentle on stomach. Can result in liver problems in heavy alcohol users. Large doses or long-term use can cause liver or kidney damage.
  • Ibuprofen, such as Advil and Motrin; Ketoprofen, such as Actron and Orudis KT; Naproxen, such as Aleve

Also reduce inflammation. (These are called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

  • These can cause stomach upset and ulcers. Take with milk or food. Can make you more sensitive to the effects of the sun. Don’t use if you are allergic to aspirin. Don’t use if you have ever had ulcers, blood clotting problems, or kidney disease
  • Aspirin, such as Bayer or Bufferin
    {Note: Do not take aspirin or any medicine with salicylates if under age 19 due to its link to Reye’s Syndrome.}
  • Can cause stomach upset (which is made worse with alcohol). May contribute to stomach ulcers and bleeding. Avoid if you : Have an ulcer or asthma and/or are having surgery within 2 weeks. High doses or prolonged use can cause ringing in the ears.


  • Activated charcoal and syrup of ipecac are not advised for home use for swallowed poisons.

  • For advice, call the Poison Control Center at 800.222.1222 or your local number.
Sore throat
  • Throat anesthetic, such as Sucrets, Chloraseptic spray

  • Tongue depressor and flashlight to check for redness and pus deposits in throat

  • Do not use anesthetics, such as benzocaine, or others that end in “caine,” if allergic to them.
  • Tweezers
  • Sterilize tips with a lit match to prevent getting an infection.
Stuffy and runny nose, postnasal drip
  • Decongestant, such as Sudafed
  • See Side Effects/Warnings for  in “Allergies” box above.
  • Cool baths or compresses with baking soda

  • Aloe vera (if not allergic to it)

  • Sunscreen to prevent sunburn. Use one with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or more.

Toothache and pain associated with dental work and dental appliances, such as braces
  • Toothache anesthetic, such as Anbesol
  • Do not swallow. Do not use if you are allergic to topical anesthetics that end in “caine.”

{Note: Consult your health care provider about using herbal products, nutritional supplements, etc. Harm can result from the product itself, taking too much of it, and/or combining it with other products, including OTC and prescription medicines. DO NOT take: Anabolic steroids; muscle building products, Green Hornet, Liquid Speed, Snuffadelic; or Adderrall (to pull an all nighter). These can cause major health problems.}


ComputerFor Information, Contact:

Food and Drug Administration

National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
888.644.6226 •

©2005, 6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.
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December 08, 2005