Choosing an OTC product

How should you choose a nonprescription (over-the-counter, OTC) product? Studies show that most decisions are driven by advertisements; recommendations from family, friends, or physicians; or coupons appearing in newspapers. In most cases, family and friends are not medical professionals, and a coupon that saves money is actually a waste unless the product is proven safe and effective.

With a seemingly endless array of products available to treat any given minor condition, it can be hard to know which medication is right for you. To help make the correct decision, it is important to educate yourself about OTC drugs, and seeking your pharmacist’s advice is a good starting point.

Limitations of advertisements

All you have to do is open any magazine or newspaper, watch television, listen to the radio, or look for coupons to realize we are constantly bombarded by advertising for OTCproducts. Since advertisers have limited time to deliver a message – either in print or in a 30 second commercial – you may not be getting the entire story about the advertised medication.

Where to learn more

The key to choosing the right nonprescription medication is learning all you can about the products available for treating your condition. While it might take a considerable amount of time to educate yourself about available OTC drugs, your pharmacist can give you a knowledgeable assessment of a specific treatment before you purchase it.

What to ask your pharmacist

You should find out the answers to several questions before purchasing a product. The first question you need to ask your pharmacist is whether it is appropriate to self-treat your condition or if you should make an appointment to see a physician. If your pharmacist says OTC medications are sufficient to treat your condition, you should ask which products provide FDA-approved, effective treatment. You can also ask whether the product is safe for you to use. Reputable OTC products have warnings on their labels that advise against use in certain cases. Ask the pharmacist to explain warnings that are unclear.

After you and your pharmacist have determined which medication is right for you, ask how to properly use it. You need to know how much of the medication you should take at one time and how often to take it. Some medication dosages vary by age or weight of the patient. You also need to know for how long it is appropriate to take an OTCmedication, and when you need to see a physician. If your condition has not improved within a certain time, you may have a more serious problem or a different condition than you thought you had. You also need to know what other medications, herbal products, or dietary supplements can interact with the OTC product (causing one or all to be ineffective or leading to other unwanted outcomes), and whether the medication itself has known adverse effects that may require you to not use it.

Additional Resources

Besides talking with your pharmacist, you can learn about OTC products on the Internet or from books that provide authoritative information. For instance, FDA’s web site (, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (, and the National Institutes of health ( provide free drug information to consumers. These books also can help: Patient Drug Facts, 2003 (Facts and Comparisons), Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs (APhA Publications), and Nonprescription Product Therapeutics (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins). Be sure to ask your pharmacist if you need to know more about a product.