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Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs

This is an excerpt from Live Well Middle School Health With Interactive Web Text by Karen E. McConnell,Terri D. Farrar & Charles B. Corbin.

Medicine is defined as the science of diagnosing and preventing disease and maintaining health. Medicine can also be defined as a drug used to maintain health or treat a health issue. In this chapter you will focus on the definition of medicine as a drug. Drugs can ease symptoms, help prevent or manage diseases, relieve pain, and treat multiple conditions. Drugs are divided into two categories: nonprescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and prescription drugs (table 12.1).

Table 12.1 Differences Between OTC and Prescription Drugs

Using OTC and Prescription Drugs Safely

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the government agency that decides which drugs require a prescription and which may be sold over the counter. The FDA allows new medicines to be used only if they are safe and do what they are supposed to. If a drug benefit outweighs its risks, the FDA usually approves the sale of the drug. The FDA can take a drug off the market at any time if it is found to cause harmful side effects. Side effects are effects drugs have on your body that don’t help your symptoms.

To use an OTC drug safely means using the drug properly. Proper use includes reading the label of the drug and following the instructions. While an OTC drug may be helpful for some injuries or illnesses, it is important for you to be able to properly determine when something is minor and when it requires medical attention.

To use prescription drugs safely, it is important you use them as they are prescribed by your doctor. When you use them as prescribed you are at a very low risk for addiction or other side effects. Addiction can be a physiological (functions of the body) or psychological (functions of the mind) need for a substance that often has physical or psychological side effects or both. Teens sometimes think that because prescription drugs are prescribed by a doctor, they are safer to use than illicit drugs. Unfortunately, when misused, prescription drugs can be just as dangerous and deadly as illicit drugs.

Reading Drug Labels

In the United States, every OTC and prescription drug has a drug facts label. The general purpose of the label is to tell you what the drug is used for and how to use it safely. Any drug can cause side effects. Following the directions on the label can lower the chance of side effects. Taking a drug as prescribed will make sure it works the way it is supposed to.

It is important that you understand the different parts of the label and what they mean. Figure 12.1 shows examples of an OTC label and a prescription label. While there are similarities on both labels, there are also sections that are very different. Make sure you understand how to read each label.

Figure 12.1 OTC and prescription labels.
Figure 12.1 OTC and prescription labels.

Potential Risks of Taking OTC and Prescription Drugs

Although the benefits of taking an OTC or a prescription drug often outweigh the consequences, it is important to know that there can be some risks you should be aware of. There are four main risks.

  1. Side effects. Most side effects are unpleasant, and may include nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, dry mouth, skin irritations, and drowsiness. It is important that you read the labels of all drugs before taking them so you know what the side effects may be.
  2. Drug–drug interactions. When two drugs are used together, it affects how your body processes them. Sometimes when drugs interact they make each drug stronger, which could create additional health problems, and sometimes the two drugs can cancel each other out and don’t work at all. Make sure you always let your doctor know all the medicines you are taking, including herbal supplements, vitamins, and minerals, because even these types of drugs can cause drug interactions with something else you may be taking.
  3. Drug–food interactions. What you eat and drink can affect the ingredients in a drug and prevent the drug from working the way it should. If your drug should be taken on an empty stomach, you should typically take it an hour before or two hours after eating.
  4. Allergic reactions. Allergic reactions to medicines do not happen very often. Signs of an allergic reaction may include itching, hives, and breathing problems. Call your doctor or 911 right away if you think you are having an allergic reaction.


Healthy Living Tip If you are using a prescription drug for anything, make sure you use it only as directed and that you don’t let anyone else use your medicine.