Is Overmedicating Making You Sicker? 4 Ways to Outsmart Over-the-Counter

ThinkstockThinkstockPharmacist Dave Pompei often sees customers "walking through the over-the-counter aisles with a confused look on their face." Chances are, this has been you at one point in time.

When that pounding headache strikes, seeking a wave of relief in a swirling sea of multicolored pills, syrups (and sprays!) is a headache of its own.

When you're feeling bad, where do you start? As anyone who has ever squinted to read a medicine label through a fever-induced haze knows, this question is trickier than it seems, especially given the fact that 81 percent of drug consumers don't know the active ingredient in Advil.

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We've answered four common myths so you can cut through the clutter and be on your way to feeling beautiful, stat.

Myth #1: Shop by brand name.

Wrong. Many top brands add extra ingredients that you don't need to treat your symptom. As such, you should always shop by symptom (not by brand name or by bottle size).

For example, if your symptom is a headache, you really have two primary ingredient choices: acetaminophen, a pain-and-fever reducer or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Sounds simple. But acetaminophen is in over 600 medicines, including Tylenol and Benadryl. NSAIs on the other hand, include aspirin and ibuprofen (think: Advil and Motrin). The problem is that many of these brands contain more than one ingredient. Excedrin, for instance, combines acetaminophen and aspirin, with caffeine to boot.

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Bottom line: If you just have a headache, turn to the ingredient list and look for single ingredients like acetaminophen or aspirin. (Or, you could always try some alternative relief methods, like acupressure.)

Myth #2: More medicine gets you better faster.

When you over-medicate and combine ingredients, you can actually suppress your ability to get well faster. Too much cough medicine around cold season may prolong your symptoms.

"Cold symptoms actually have a use. Coughing is the body's way to get rid of gunk in your lungs," YouBeauty founder Michael Roizen, M.D. says. "When you take cough medicine to suppress your cough reflex, the bacteria can gain hold in lungs. Real problems come when you overdo it and don't clear your lungs out," Dr. Roizen adds.

By suppressing your immune system with too much codeine (the primary ingredient in cough medicine), you dampen your body's ability to fight infection faster. "There's a just-right, bell-shaped curve you want to hit, so you suppress symptoms and negative inflammation, but not your ability to get better," Dr. Roizen says.

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Moral of the story: That cough medicine will keep you (and everyone around you) from suffering, but knocking yourself out on the highest dose won't do your body any favors.

Myth #3: Fevers and pain should get the same dose of ibuprofen as for inflammation, like arthritis.

Ibuprofen is a NSAID that hit U.S. stores in 1974. Lower doses are for pain/fever while inflammation requires a higher dose. Specifically, your fever would need 200-400mg of ibuprofen, every 4-6 hours. Pompei advises starting with the lowest dose, and then upping the dose as you monitor your response.

"Generally speaking, analgesia is achieved at a dose of 400mg. Taking doses in excess of that increases the potential for adverse events, but may not necessarily provide additional pain relief," Pompei says. "Imagine it this way: The body is 'maxed out' at a dose of 400mg, but will find some mischief for idle milligrams to do," he adds. For pain relief, you definitely shouldn't exceed 1200mg a day unless directed by a physician.

Chronic inflammation (like arthritis) may require a higher dose, between 400-800mg, every 4-6 hours. Patients should always start at 400mg and shouldn't increase the dose unless directed by a physician. Talk to your physician if you have an underlying inflammatory disease that you may already be taking anti-inflammatory medicine for. (For chronic inflammatory conditions, the maximum daily dose goes up to 3200 mg per day.)

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Myth #4: "It's in my medicine cabinet, so it must be safe."

Aside from the medicine aisles of your local store, you also need to navigate your medicine cabinet. Blame the tough economy, but many people opt for a huge bottle of pills that can "cure the pain of the Chicago Bears football team," Pompei jokes. In reality, the meds end up becoming expired, or worse, in your mouth when you don't need them.

According to the FDA, NSAIDs are used by about 17 million Americans on a daily basis, and lead to about 200,000 trips to the hospital each year for complications like gastrointestinal bleeding. (Acetaminophen overdoses are responsible for an average of over 56,000 hospital visits per year.) This leads to $2 billion in annual healthcare costs, and more scarily, 17,000 U.S. deaths yearly.

Why? "Brand names have multiple ingredients-ones that you may already be taking," says Dave Pompei, meaning that accidental overdoses are more likely. Talk to a pharmacist or doctor if you're taking any other medicine. Relying on the long list of a label alone is a risky way to go.

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Some experts call this the silent epidemic, because the culprits are so accessible. Alcohol is commonly mixed into the cocktail of OTC meds, but it can also activate an enzyme in your body that turns acetaminophen into a liver-damaging chemical. Aside from this complication, drinking can increase or decrease the activity of the medicine in your body (making you overly drowsy, or negating the effects of your medicine altogether). Clearly, any of these interactions is a recipe for disaster.

While Pompei still shudders to see people pop pills like candy, he works on getting the word out as Medical Director for Help Remedies, a brand of OTC medicine that treat symptoms with a single ingredient. This line of over-the-counter medication attempts to reduce consumer's confusion, which cuts back on complications as a result.

This cold season, no need to avoid medicine altogether. Just knowing what you're taking can help you get balanced when your body gets out of whack.

MORE: How to Talk to Your Doctor

- Angelica Catalano

What do you take when you have a headache or a cold?

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