Along with the rise of generic drugs, another trend in the medication marketplace has been the transition of many popular drugs from prescription to over-the-counter (OTC). As drugs become available without a prescription, however, the litany of warnings and potential side effects at the end of TV ads and in print and online ads (in tiny type) for prescription drugs may get lost.
The FDA requires direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs to present a “fair balance” of benefits and risks. But oversight of OTC drug ads (though not of the drugs themselves) is handled by another federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which doesn’t require that information about risks be routinely included in ads.
OTC drugs usually come in lower dosages than their prescription counterparts, so the risks are reduced, but they still exist. Even common pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen (both initially available only by prescription) can have serious side effects.
OTC drugs are a reasonable, convenient, and inexpensive way to manage minor, self-limiting problems. But all drugs have risks. Incorrect use of OTC drugs sends thousands of people to the hospital every year and can be deadly. So read the small print on labels and package inserts, where the FDA does require warnings to be listed.
Heed warnings about possible side effects and interactions with other drugs, and follow dosage instructions. Don’t take a drug for longer than recommended unless your doctor has okayed it. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist or doctor.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.