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Medicine cabinet dos and don'ts

The best drugstore products to buy—and what to skip—to save money and keep your family safe

Last updated: October 2008

There are 39 types of Tylenol, 18 versions of Alka-Seltzer, six of Excedrin, and 18 of Sudafed. With so many options at the drugstore, how can you make the best choices? We listed our top picks of everything you need for a well-stocked medicine cabinet. Also, see our "Drug Don'ts." It turns out that over-the-counter medications can be just as risky as prescription drugs.

In fact, more than 700 medications available OTC today contain ingredients and come in dosages that were available only by prescription less than 30 years ago. These drugs can be effective and save time and money, but they come with risks!

Best drugs for...

Allergies Loratadine (Claritin or generic brands) is safer, as effective, and less sedating than other nonprescription allergy drugs, such as Chlor-Trimeton and Benadryl Allergy.

Constipation Docusate (Colace, Phillips' Liqui-Gels) is meant for occasional constipation. If it's frequent, take high-fiber products such as methylcellulose (Citrucel) or psyllium (Metamucil).

Cough Non-medicated lozenges with glycerin or honey are fine, but don't buy cough medications containing dextromethorphan, such as Mucinex DM, Robitussin Cough Long-Acting, or Vicks 44 Cough Relief. Those drugs don't do much to relieve a cough caused by a cold.

Cuts and scrapes Bandages in a variety of sizes and shapes are good to have around. Also keep a local anesthetic on hand, like Americaine Spray or Dermoplast.

Diarrhea Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide (Imodium A-D) are OK, but if diarrhea lasts more than two days, see a doctor.

Headache, muscle ache, fever Acetaminophen (Tylenol or generics) is safest for most people.

Heartburn Antacids like Tums are safe, effective, and cheap for occasional heartburn. But don't take them with milk, which might irritate the stomach or even damage the kidneys over time. If you get predictable bouts of heartburn when eating certain foods, keep Pepcid Complete or Zantac 150 around to take before meals.

Infection protection Isopropyl (rubbing alcohol) is good for sterilizing tweezers, nail or cuticle scissors, or other bathroom tools that can spread infection.

Injuries An ice pack can reduce swelling in the first 24 to 48 hours. Keep a heat wrap, like ThermaCare, heating pad, or hot-water bottle for easing pain after swelling subsides.

Itchy bug bites and poison ivy Hydrocortisone creams like Cortaid or Cortizone 10 reduce the inflammation.

Runny nose Benadryl Allergy and Chlor-Trimeton are effective, but they can cause drowsiness.

Sore throat Dyclonine (Sucrets Maximum Strength, Original Sore Throat Lozenges) is your best bet.

Stinging bug bites and sunburn A topical pain reliever containing benzocaine, benzyl alcohol, dibucaine, or pramoxine (Caladryl Clear, Dermoplast, Lanacane) will numb the skin.

Stuffy nose Decongestant or nasal sprays (Afrin 12-hour spray, Neo-Synephrine 12-hour spray) will work on stuffy noses, but switch to pseudoephedrine (Sudafed or generics) after three days to prevent rebound congestion.

Temperature Vicks Comfort-Flex and Omron 20 Seconds Digital thermometers did well in our tests. They can take your temperature in less than 30 seconds.

Yeast infections Clotrimazole cream (Gyne-Lotrimin or generics) or miconazole cream (Monistat 7 or generics) will work. But don't buy them unless you've been given a yeast-infection diagnosis by a doctor at least twice so you know the difference between that and something more serious, like a bacterial infection.

Drug don'ts

  • Using regular spoons for medicine. Household spoons come in many sizes. So instead, use measuring spoons, droppers, or cups that come with the medications or those designed for measuring drugs, especially when treating children.
  • Taking multi-symptom remedies. Drugs that combine cold and flu remedies might seem like a sure-fire way to get relief, but those combo medications have multiple ingredients and can raise the risk of side effects and overdoses if you mix them with other drugs. Instead, choose over-the-counter medications by their active ingredients and buy single-symptom formulas.
  • Self-treating poisoning. The American Academy of Pediatrics has advised against using syrup of ipecac to treat poisoning in children (that goes for adults too). And a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee has recommended that it be withdrawn from the OTC market. Studies show the vomiting induced by ipecac doesn't reliably remove poison from the stomach, and side effects like lethargy can be confused with the effects of the poison. Persistent vomiting also can interfere with treatment by a poison-control center specialist or doctor. In case of poisoning, call 800-222-1222 for a local poison-control center or call 911 if symptoms are severe.
  • Giving babies cough medicine. Cough and cold remedies should not be given to infants and children under 2.
  • Leaving iron pills around. Iron pills and multivitamins with iron can seriously injure or even kill young children. And it doesn't take many pills to cause a deadly reaction.

Jim Guest

President

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