Medications to have at home
For common minor symptoms and illnesses, over-the-counter medicines are available. Always follow the manufacturer's directions and warnings when using these products. If you have any questions, consult with your doctor before starting a new over-the-counter drug. All medications lose their effectiveness (expire) over time and eventually should be replaced. Check the expiration date before using any product.
Remember that storing medicines improperly shortens their "shelf life." Store medicines in a cool, dry area. The heat from kitchens and the moisture from bathrooms decrease the effectiveness of a medication. Store all medications out of reach of children. See: Storing medicine safely
Do NOT give aspirin to children under 12. Consult your health care provider before giving aspirin, ibuprofen, or similar medicines to children. Pepto-Bismol contains aspirin-like salicylates, so talk with your doctor before using it in children.
Avoid combination cough and cold preparations in children under age 6 because they have sometimes caused over-sedation and death. Above all, be sure that the medications you use do not contain the same ingredients, which could lead to an overdose.
Women should consult their doctor before taking over-the-counter medicines while pregnant or breastfeeding.
The following list includes some examples of over-the-counter medicines for common symptoms. This list is not comprehensive, nor does it imply an endorsement of some brands over others. Many of these have less expensive “store brand” equivalents. Always look at the ingredients. There are many “multisymptom” combination versions -- you should select products with the fewest ingredients needed to address your actual symptoms.
Aches and pains
- Aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin, Ecotrin)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve)
- Acetaminophen/aspirin/caffeine (Excedrin)
Stuffy nose/ congestion
- Oral decongestants: pseudoephedrine (Contact Non-Drowsy, Simply Stuffy, Sudafed)
- Decongestant nasal sprays: oxymetazoline (Afrin, Neo-Synephrine, Sinex) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine, Sinex)
- Note: Decongestant nasal sprays may work more quickly but have a rebound effect if you use them more than 3 - 5 days. They are best for short-lived colds and not for persistent allergies.
Cough with sputum or phlegm
- Expectorant: guaifenesin (Robitussin)
- Menthol throat lozenges: Halls, Robitussin, Vicks
- Liquid cough suppressant: dextromethorphan (Benylin, Delsym, Robitussin DM, Simply Cough, Vicks 44)
- Sore throat lozenges: Chloraseptic, Luden's, Sucrets
- Anesthetic spray: dyclonine (Cepacol), phenol (Chloraseptic)
- General pain-killers: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Nonsedating antihistamines: loratadine (Alavert, Claritin, Dimetapp ND)
- Sedating antihistamines: diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), brompheniramine (Dimetapp), or clemastine (Tavist)
- Preventative nasal spray: Cromolyn sodium (NasalCrom)
Skin rashes and itching
- Hydrocortisone cream (Cortaid, Cortizone 10), Domeboro
|Cuts and scrapes|
- Antibiotic creams: bacitracin, Neosporin, Polysporin
- Antiseptics: Bactine, Betadine, hydrogen peroxide solution, Lanacane First Aid Spray
- Antidiarrheal: loperamide (Imodium), bismuth (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol)
- Rehydration fluids: Enfalyte, Pedialyte
- Emetrol, Pepto-Bismol
- Rehydration fluids: Enfalyte, Pedialyte
- Motion sickness: dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
See also: Home first aid kit
Barkin RL, Barkin SJ, Barkin DS. Perception, assessment, treatment, and management of pain in the elderly. Clin Geriatr Med. 2005; 21(3):465-490.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Drugs. Acetaminophen toxicity in children. Pediatrics. 2001; 108(4):1020-1024.
Carr BC. Efficacy, abuse, and toxicity of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in the pediatric population. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2006;18:184-188.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Infant deaths associated with cough and cold medications -- two states, 2005. MMWR. 2007;56:1-4.
Linda Vorvick, MD, Family Physician, Seattle Site Coordinator, Lecturer, Pathophysiology, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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