Many people have gotten used to the idea of taking a pill every time they are in pain or even feel moderately uncomfortable. There is something available over-the-counter for everything from headaches to the common cold, but in the end these medicines could be doing your body much more harm than good. Many common over-the-counter medications can be dangerous if taken to excess, or even if taken regularly over a long period of time.
Acetaminophen is the painkiller of choice for Americans, but overdoses of this medicine is one of the most common causes of poisoning in the world.1 Because it’s found in so many different kinds of over-the-counter products, from cold medicine to fever-reducing painkillers, it is easy for the consumer to use far more acetaminophen than they realize. Unless treated immediately, overdose can result in liver failure and death.2 Regular use of acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen may even lead to hearing loss.3
Ibuprofen is another popular painkiller, but it is no less dangerous. Women who take a great deal of ibuprofen increase their risk of high blood pressure by as much as 78 percent.4 It also increases the risk of peptic ulcers.5 An overdose can cause loss of consciousness and seizures.6 Excessive use can cause serious gastrointestinal ulceration and bleeding without warning symptoms.7
Aspirin is a useful blood thinner for people at great risk for heart attacks, but when healthy people take it daily “just in case,” it almost doubles their risk of being hospitalized for internal bleeding.8 It also increases the risk for ulcers, and increases the incidence of bleeding for those who have already had bleeding ulcers.9
Dextromethorphan (DXM) is a cough suppressant that is widely known for its side effects. It has shown up in the media and is an issue for concerned parents, because many people take it recreationally for its euphoric and hallucinogenic effects. DXM is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter cold medicines, so it wouldn’t be difficult to accidentally take more than the recommended dose when combining drugs.
Prescription drugs are an even greater danger. Statistical analysis of fatalities among hospitalized patients in the United States during 1994 revealed that 76,000–137,000 deaths could be attributed to adverse drug reactions.10 According to this study, even if the number were 76,000 deaths, adverse drugs reactions would have ranked as the sixth leading cause of death among inpatients that year—behind cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, pulmonary disease, and accidental trauma.11 This analysis would not have included fatalities resulting from adverse drug reactions occurring outside the hospital setting, so it may have underestimated the number of deaths attributable to adverse drug reactions in that year.
1 Medline Plus, “Acetaminophen overdose,” NIH, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002598.htm (accessed December 1, 2010).
3 Jennifer Davis, “Pain Medications Tied to Hearing Loss in Men,” Arthritis Today, http://www.arthritistoday.org/news/pain-drugs-hearing-loss-men043.php (accessed December 1, 2010).
4 Daniel J. DeNoon,“Common Pain Drugs Up High Blood Pressure Risk: Tylenol, Ibuprofen Linked to High Blood Pressure in Women,” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/news/20050815/common-pain-drugs-up-high-blood-pressure-risk (accessed December 1, 2010).
5 Medline Plus, “Peptic ulcer,” NIH, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000206.htm (accessed December 1, 2010).
6 “Ibuprofen oral,” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/drugs/mono-9368-IBUPROFEN+-+ORAL.aspx?drugid=5166&drugname=Ibuprofen (accessed December 1, 2010).
6 “Ibuprofen,” Drugs.com, http://www.drugs.com/pro/ibuprofen.html#s29 (accessed December 1, 2010).
8 Rebecca Smith, “Aspirin does more harm than good in healthy people,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6114302/Aspirin-does-more-harm-than-good-in-healthy-people-research.html (accessed December 1, 2010).
9 N. D. Yeomans, A. I. Lanas, N. J. Talley, A. B. R. Thomson, R. Daneshjoo, B. Eriksson, S. Appelman-Eszczuk, G. Langstrom, J. Naesdal, P. Serrano, M. Singh, M. M. Skelly, C. J. Hawkey, “Prevalence and incidence of gastroduodenal ulcers during treatment with vascular protective doses of aspirin,” Aliment Pharmacol Ther 22, p. 795-801.
10 Lazarou J, Pomeranz BH, Corey PN, “Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients: a meta-analysis of prospective studies,” JAMA 279, no.15, p. 1200-1205, http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/279/15/1200 (accessed December 1, 2010).
12 Ray D. Strand, M.D., “Death by Prescription,” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), p. 90.