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411 On Medications

Taking aspirin for a headache or a decongestant for a stuffy nose may seem perfectly safe, but there are some important facts you need to know before treating your symptoms.

Dr. Wallace Carter, the director of the emergency medicine residency program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler, just because it's legal for you to go into a drug store and buy medication does not mean that everything on the shelves is harmless.

He says, "People have the perception if they don't have to go to the doctor's office and get a prescription, they can walk into the pharmacy, and everything on the shelf is fair game: no contact, no foul, sometimes more is better. We've certainly seen often enough that that can lead to disastrous consequences. Not a good way to go."

The following are three common mistakes that Dr. Carter finds people make when taking OTC drugs.

Taking multiple OTC meds: When you take two or more drugs together, you run the risk of overdosing. For example, you have a cold and decide to down some cold medication along with some Tylenol. Turns out that most cold remedies contain Tylenol. You've now taken two doses, or more, of Tylenol. Repeating this mistake, too often, in a short period of time, can be a serious problem - you can poison yourself. And this happens much more easily than you may think. Many drugs on the market now are multi-ingredient drugs, Dr. Carter says, and that makes it hard to avoid overdosing.

Combining OTC and prescription meds: "People assume that this doesn't affect their prescription medications, and that's just wrong," Dr. Carter says. It's impossible for you to guess how your prescription drug and over-the-counter drug are going to influence each other, but you can bet that they will. Casually taking Sudafed while on blood pressure medication, for example, can hurt you.

He says, "Feel free to go up to the pharmacist and say, 'I'm on X, Y and Z, what should I do?' Or ask your doctor or the emergency department or the clinic. There are ways to avoid this. Being kind of a good consumer and being an advocate is the way to go."

Ignoring dosage instructions: If your doctor instructs you to take your prescription antibiotic twice a day, you do so. However, you read the back of an Advil bottle and decide for yourself that the recommended dosage is conservative and you can take more tablets or take them more often than the directions state. The dosage instructions were created for a reason, Dr. Carter says, and you would be wise to follow them. For example, OTC sleep remedies won't put you into a deep sleep like a prescription sleeping pill does. Instead, they will simply makes you drowsy. Doubling the dosage won't make you fall asleep. Instead, it will make you jumpy and agitated.

Dr. Carter reminds people that OTC meds don't begin to work immediately, so you need to give them time to kick in before deciding the drug is ineffective. OTC drugs are formulated to be time-released; it will take about 30 minutes to an hour before you really feel these medications calming your symptoms.

When you're not feeling well, going into a drug store can be somewhat overwhelming. After all, there is an entire aisle dedicated to cold remedies and painkillers. How do you choose the one that's right for you?

Dr. Carter says, in general, Tylenol is the safest painkiller to take. Aspirin and ibuprofin are both great, but they can result in more side effects than Tylenol.

As for cold remedies, drug companies now try to create one-pill-cures-all medications, drugs that claim to cure every possible cold symptom in one dose. Dr. Carter suggests picking your worst symptom and treating that one. Buy a simple decongestant if that's what you want to focus on, for example.

Dr. Carter notes there is no difference between brand name and generic OTC meds. However, he recommends buying only those generic drugs that are closely regulated by the FDA. Aspirin, Tylenol and Sudafed, for instance, are all closely scrutinized and well controlled by the FDA. You should not hesitate to buy the store's brand of these medications.

On the other hand, vitamins and herbal supplements, are not regulated by the FDA. In these instances, you are better off buying a national name brand, which you recognize as reliable. These brands need to uphold their images and are more likely to adhere to the latest research or guidelines that apply to their products.

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