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Harmful Interactions of OTC Medicines

You're taking a couple of prescription medications and you develop a cold. Without a second thought you go to the nearest pharmacy to get something for your headache, cough and stuffy nose. Not so fast, experts advise. Mixing medications can be dangerous, even deadly. Think of what's currently in your medicine cabinet. If your household is like most families, you've probably got a mixture of prescription and over the counter drugs (OTC) drugs. Some of these OTC medicines, when combined with prescription drugs or alcohol could cause harmful interactions or prove fatal when used in combination, or in the wrong dosages. Many of us take multiple over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs that when combined with other medications could create these harmful interactions. Experts warn that OTC medicines, including popular remedies for cough, colds and allergies, may have many ingredients that interact with alcohol. Some OTC medicines for coughs contain up to 10 percent alcohol. Some of the most dangerous OTC drug interactions involve combining cold remedies containing decongestants, which may cause an increase in blood pressure, and MAO-inhibitors, which are a type of antidepressant. Another OTC medicine and prescription drug combination that may cause harmful interactions are taking OTC cold medicines often containing decongestants, with drugs prescribed for high blood pressure.

If an individual is taking a prescription medication on a regular basis, they should be sure to ask their doctor of pharmacist if there is any chance of a harmful interaction with any over the counter medicines. A report this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that deaths from accidental drug interactions rose 68 percent since 2007, continuing a steady climb since the early 1990s. Unintentional drug poisonings, including combining OTC medicines with prescription drugs, accounted for over 20,000 deaths in 2010, said the CDC, making the problem now the second-leading cause of accidental death in the United States, after automobile accidents.

Experts advise patients to consult their doctors and pharmacists before adding new medications, prescription or over-the-counter or herbal remedies to their regimens. "Many of the products you can buy OTC today were still prescription medications just a few years ago," so don't underestimate their strength, said Catherine M. Polley, senior vice president and chief policy officer at the American Pharmacists Association. The Internet provides a wealth of information about prescription and OTC medicines and the harmful drug interactions that can occur. But the depth and quality of such information vary greatly depending on the site that the individual goes to. A recent study shows that 68% of those people who take a prescribed medication also take an over the counter medicine - many times without advising or consulting with their physician or pharmacist on potential harmful interactions. This puts health care professionals at a significant disadvantage when trying to assess the dangers of drug interactions when creating a profile of their patients.

It's always better to err on the side of caution with potentially harmful drug interactions When in doubt, ask your doctor or pharmacist about any potential drug interactions, and the advisability of taking OTC medicines and prescription drugs, how long to take and what other remedies may be available. If you or a loved one experiences a harmful drug interaction, seek medical treatment immediately.