Health Notes – The confusing world of over-the-counter medications

March 30, 2017

To help people become savvy consumers in drug stores and pharmacies and wiser users of over-the-counter medications, Dr. Richard Streiffer, dean of UA’s College of Community Health Sciences and a family medicine physician, went shopping. He recounted his shopping experience and provided helpful information in a presentation March 9 that was part of the Mini Medical School lecture series hosted by the College in collaboration with UA’s OLLI program. His presentation was titled “Over-the-counter drugs: A prescription for confusion.” Streiffer said Americans make a lot of trips to the drug store for over-the-counter medications, about 3 billion trips annually, and there are approximately 300,000 over-the-counter medications on the market. “I want to help you be a little smarter as a consumer,” he told the audience. He said people spend a lot of money on over-the-counter medications they might not need or that might not be effective. In addition, some of the medications can cause adverse health effects, particularly if people are taking multiple medications or have chronic health conditions, he said. Streiffer offered strategies people can use to better gauge cost and effectiveness. His top tips: buy generic brands and read labels. “There’s a fear of generics, but it’s really just a labeling and marketing difference,” he said. “For the most part, find the brand name and look next to it for the generic.” He noted that a quick read of the labels on Excedrin and Excedrin Migraine showed that both contain the exact same ingredients; they are just marketed – and priced – differently. Streiffer showed examples of men’s and women’s multi-vitamins and the only ingredient differences between the two were that the men’s blend had cayenne pepper and the women’s had dried cranberry. He added that affluent people with good diets don’t really need multi-vitamins, which can cost $25 or more per month. Streiffer said it’s often difficult to discern differences between supplements and medications. “Talk about overwhelming, and supplements aren’t regulated,” he said. Supplements are classified as food, so they are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. They are marketed as supporters, not relievers, and might include information on labels such as “in support of sleep.” “There is usually little scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of supplements, and they can cause side effects,” Streiffer said. For example, ginseng has been touted for improving energy, depression and nausea, and cranberry for improving urinary track health. “There’s no evidence for this. When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As a society, we are too quick to grab a pill,” Streiffer said.