This or That? The pharmacist knows

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Claritin or Zyrtec? Tylenol or Advil? Carmex or ChapStick? When you’ve got a drippy nose, monster headache or even simply chapped lips, chances are you head to your local pharmacy in search of relief. Once there, however, navigating the endless over-the-counter (OTC) options on store shelves can prove seemingly impossible.

When encountered with the myriad of treatment methods, someone can easily become overwhelmed, throw up his or her hands in frustration and grab the cheapest item. While this selection method appears harmless, people forget to realize that OTC medications can carry the same dangers associated with prescription products such as liver toxicity, gastrointestinal upset and even, in rare instances, death. When faced with the daunting task of choosing a self-treatment option, however, patients must realize that they are not alone as their pharmacist is poised to answer all questions regarding potential options. Utilizing the readily accessible knowledge of a pharmacist not only ensures optimal treatment of your condition, but it can also save you money and reduce side effects related to an OTC product.

According to recent surveys, there are approximately 1,000 active ingredients used in the more than 100,000 OTC items available for purchase. While many of these medications can be safely utilized to treat minor aliments, other commonplace items such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), Excedrin (acetaminophen, aspirin, caffeine) and NyQuil® (acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, doxylamine) can cause significant harm if used inappropriately.

The risk of developing what pharmacists call “adverse reactions,” is exponentially increased when products are taken together or for prolonged periods of time — something that the “normal” college student can forget or ignore as they undergo the daily stresses of studying for class or cramming for an upcoming exam.

To put this risk into perspective, envision a student struggling during dead week as five huge exams loom only days away. While diligently studying one night, he decides to self-treat a developing headache with three Excedrin and two Tylenol. After his intense study session, he feels slightly buzzed and decides to down some NyQuil to sleep a few hours before waking up to repeat the same exhausting routine. Assuming our imaginary student consumes the same amount of medication nightly, by the end of a five-day week, he would have ingested approximately 15 Excedrin, 14 Tylenol and 180mL of NyQuil — totally harmless, right? Some quick math reveals that his OTC medication contains the caffeine-equivalent of seven Starbucks Grande Vanilla Lattes, 23 grams of Tylenol, four grams of aspirin and enough alcohol to constitute three shots of 40-proof liquor. Just the sheer amount of acetaminophen consumed would predispose him to liver failure, but when combined with the blood-thinning effects of aspirin and cardio-stimulating effects of caffeine, this type of medication regimen could easily result in a heart attack, stroke or even death.

With scenarios like the one depicted above occurring more commonly, pharmacists can prove essential to the prevention of similar events when questioned about OTC medication prior to use. At the UK College of Pharmacy, students undergo four years of specialized education that focuses on how both prescription and non-prescription medications interact when placed inside the human body.

Upon graduation, the new Doctors of Pharmacy can quickly recognize potentially harmful medication combinations, intervene by counseling patients and suggest alternative or more effective treatment plans. As an added bonus, the knowledge pharmacists possess is dispensed free of charge and without a required appointment, as anyone can casually approach the closest pharmacy and ask to speak to one of these trained professionals.

Make your life easier the next time you step into a pharmacy seeking relief from a headache or sleeplessness — ask the pharmacist if you have a question because we can always help you choose between this or that.

Know your medicine. Know your pharmacist.

Wade Barton is a third-year pharmacy student and President of the National Community Pharmacists Association, UK Chapter. Email [email protected]