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Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves

What if someone in your family suddenly became ill in the middle of the night, and you can't find an open drugstore?

It's very important to have your medicine cabinet stocked with the most essential, over-the-counter, at-home first aid products and medications - in the event a sudden need for them arises.

Early Show medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall filled in viewers on medicine cabinet must-haves Saturday:

Before you take any over-the-counter drug, make sure there isn't a reason you shouldn't be taking it.

Some people have certain medical conditions or are taking certain prescription medications that don't mix well with over-the-counter drugs. So if there's any question, ask you doctor first. And of course, with young kids, you should always ask your pediatrician before giving them a medication.

These are general suggestions for what the average American family should keep in their medicine chest on a regular basis.

For a nasty cold or flu:

Remember, these suggestions are for adults only. Recent studies have found that popular over-the-counter cough and cold remedies can be harmful to children.

Many cough and cold preparations come in combination, which can be both confusing and expensive. It's best to stick with one active ingredient and take only what you need at that time.

Good things to have on hand in case that common cold or flu strikes include a decongestant (Sudafed, phenylephrine) and an antihistamine (Benadryl, diphenhydramine, Claritin, loratadine). And for a cough syrup, look for a cough suppressant (Robitussin, dextromethorphan). For nasal congestion, you should keep some saline drops around (saline nasal drops, baby bulb suction) which will come in handy for your infant, too, if you use it with a bulb suction.

Would some of these same medications work for allergies?

Yes, a lot of people are suffering from itchy, watery eyes and sneezing right now, and many people have allergies year-round. Also, summer is popular for those itchy rashes, poison ivy, hives and mosquito bites. So, it's a good idea to have an over-the-counter allergy medication or anti-itch medicine on hand. Clairitin can help without causing as much drowsiness.

For fever:

If you or your child has a fever, it's best to stick with acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol (Tylenol capsules, acetaminophen capsules, Children's Tylenol liquid, Children's acetaminophen liquid) or ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Motrin and Advil (Motrin capsules, Advil capsules, ibuprofen capsules, Children's Motrin). Don't give your children aspirin if they have a fever. And of course, keep a thermometer on hand so you can check your temperature (digital oral/rectal thermometer - not mercury).

For pain - certain medications are better for headache as opposed to a sprained ankle:

For routine aches and pains, such as a headache, you can also take acetaminophen, but if you have a sprain or a swollen joint, you may want to choose an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or naproxen or aspirin (Aleve, naproxen, aspirin).

For Bellyaches: There are so many different types of bellyaches, so how do you know which one to take?

Many times, an upset stomach simply needs to be allowed to rest - meaning a bland diet and clear fluids. But in some cases, you might need to reach for medication. If you have heartburn, good products to have on hand include calcium carbonate, the active ingredient in TUMS (TUMS, generic) or something that contains aluminum or magnesium hydroxide, like Maalox or Mylanta (Maalox, Mylanta). For diarrhea, again, usually treatment isn't necessary. But one product you might want to stock is loperamide or Imodium (Imodium) And if you have youngsters at home, you probably want to stock a re-hydration solution such as Pedialyte or Rehydralyte (Pedialyte), which will be gentle on an upset stomach but give them the salts and fluid they need to stay well-hydrated.

For a boo-boo!

A lot of people use hydrogen peroxide, betadine (Hydrogen Peroxide, Betadine) or other antiseptics to clean cuts and scrapes, but to be honest, some of those solutions can actually delay wound healing, and you're usually better off cleaning a wound with simple soap and water. You can keep an antibiotic ointment on hand, such as Neosporin, or a generic equivalent (Neosporin, triple antibiotic ointment) to treat minor, local infections. And of course, have some band-aids (Bandaids) around, as well as tweezers, a small pair of scissors, rubbing alcohol, and perhaps some cotton balls just in case (tweezers, scissors, cotton balls, rubbing alcohol).

For insect bites and stings:

Try something that many of us keep in our kitchen cabinets - meat tenderizer! It contains an enzyme that breaks down the venomous protein if you get stung by a bee or wasp. Just mix it with a little water to form a paste. You should also keep some hydrocortisone cream around for those itchy insect bites. And calamine lotion can soothe itching or pain from insect bites or rashes.

Be particularly careful if there are young children in your home:

Lock up your medications and keep the phone number of Poison Control in clear view (Poison Control Hotline 1-800-222-1222). Check the expiration dates on your over-the-counter medications, and consider going through the medicine cabinet on a yearly basis to replace anything that's expired.


A visit to a drugstore or supermarket can be a frustrating and confusing trip if you are trying to find the right over-the-counter medicine. Regardless of what ails you there are likely to be dozens of products to choose from. Finding the right product for you can be a challenge to say the least. Here's my pick of what to have in the medicine cabinet. These recommendations are general and may not be the best for some people with certain medical conditions or taking certain drugs. So, always ask your doctor and make sure you read the label to see if the products are right for you.

First and foremost, if you have small children in the house or are visited by children, you should have a bottle of ipecac on hand and the telephone number for the local poison control center available. Poisonings still happen and young children are especially at risk.

There are lots of combination products that are designed to treat a host of different symptoms. The problem with many is that you are taking drugs you perhaps don't need, and the dose of many of the drugs in the combination products isn't the right dose. Keeping it simple is my advice. It also works out to be a lot less expensive in the long run to buy a pain reliever, something for cough and something for a runny nose separately. You can end up paying 30 percent more for the combination product than for each of the ingredients separately.

For coughs, my pick is any product that contains dextromethorphan for both adults and for children. Many cough syrups contain a number of different ingredients such as antihistamines and something called guaifenesin. Antihistamines don't work very well for coughs and colds. Guaifenesin is supposed to increase secretions in the lungs and break up thick secretions. It probably doesn't work.

It's the dextromethorphan you are after. The adult dose is 30 milligrams of dextromethorphan taken every four to six hours. There are some products available such as Delsym that contain a sustained-release form of dextromethorphan that can be taken twice a day by adults and children over age 12 years. The cost ranges from $0.75 to $1.00 per day for store-brand products. Brand-name products cost up to 50 percent more and average around $1.50 per day.

For pain and fever, I recommend acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol) for both adults and children. Again, there are lots of combination products, but none work any better. Store-brand products work as well as the brand-name product and are less expensive.

For pain and inflammation in adults (mild arthritis symptoms, for example), I recommend products that contain naproxen (Aleve and others). Once again, the store brand is much less expensive and works every bit as well as the brand-name product. Products that contain ibuprofen are reasonable as well (such as Motrin IB and others). Ibuprofen needs to be taken more often than products containing naproxen.

Most acute bouts of diarrhea don't need any treatment. Keeping up with fluids is a good idea in adults and very important in children, especially young children. Pedialyte is perhaps the best available product, especially for children, because it contains water, sugar and minerals that are being lost from the diarrhea.

The two other products I recommend are Pepto Bismol and loperamide. Pepto Bismol is especially useful for traveler's diarrhea. Loperamide (also known as Imodium) works by slowing down the activity in the gastrointestinal tract.

Many adults have occasional heartburn. While it is best to avoid the foods that cause your problem, there are several ways to deal with occasional symptoms. That burning sensation is caused by stomach contents (including acid) getting up into your esophagus. Antacids, such as Maalox and Mylanta and others, work by neutralizing the acid. Most antacids contain either aluminum or magnesium hydroxides or a calcium salt. Liquid preparations usually work better and faster than tablets. My recommendation is to use a store brand of a double-strength antacid that contains either aluminum or magnesium hydroxide. Be aware that aluminum hydroxide and calcium salts can produce constipation in some people and magnesium hydroxide can cause diarrhea.

There is an amazing array of first-aid products available. Many are designed to reduce the risk of infection (antiseptics) and reduce the pain from minor cuts and abrasions (local anesthetics). Antiseptics often contain either an iodine-based product (povidone iodine) or benzalkonium chloride. There is no evidence that any of these products reduce the risk of infection or promote wound healing. Irrigation with tap water is more than adequate for all but the most contaminated wound. For young children, topical products that contain a local anesthetic may provide sufficient pain relief to allow for a tear-free cleansing of the wound. I recommend solutions that have lidocaine as the active ingredient.

For most minor cuts and scrapes, bandages (such as Band-Aid) are optional. If the wound isn't in an area that will get dirty or be rubbed by clothing, you don't have to cover it. If the cut or scrape is in an area that is likely to get dirty (such as the hand) or will be irritated by clothing (such as the knee or elbow), covering it with a bandage is a good idea. If a bandage is used, it should be changed daily.

Deep or large scrapes should be seen and treated by a health-care professional. He or she may dress it with an occlusive or semiocclusive bandage, which will reduce the risk of scarring and speed healing.

No discussion of what to have in the medicine cabinet would be complete without a quick comment on what not to put in your medicine cabinet.

Drugs decompose faster when exposed to heat and moisture. The bathroom may well be one of the worst places to store medications, especially prescription drugs. If you are not certain of the best place to store prescription drugs ask your pharmacist for advice. Finally, you should discard any prescription drugs that you are no longer using or that have gone beyond their expiration dates.