By Laurie Ross

As more medicines become available on pharmacy shelves without a prescription, pressure is on consumers to make their own medical decisions. Are you intimidated by all the choices and marketing claims?

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1. Where does it hurt?

Think about what symptoms you’re trying to ease. Headache? Cough? Sore throat? The front of the medicine package will tell you what the drug will treat, along with basic facts like what age group it is for and whether it’s packaged in liquid, tablet or other form. Turn the package over to see the details: the Drug Facts. Mandated by FDA since 2017, this is the most reliable and complete information for you to understand. The “uses” section will tell you exactly what the medicine is approved to treat.

2. What is the “active ingredient”?

This is the chemical (generic) name of the medicine, the amount contained in each recommended dose, and its basic purpose. Use this to compare different brands: Look at how much medicine is actually in each dose. The “inactive ingredients” listed at the bottom of the Drug Facts label are the non-medicinal components such as preservatives, colorings or blending ingredients – check them out if you’re concerned about additives like artificial coloring or lactose.

TIP: Don’t assume that “Maximum strength” listed on the front of the label really means extra dosage – compare drug facts.

3. Warnings

Read these carefully, especially if you have any chronic conditions like asthma, heart disease, kidney or liver problems, and discuss them with your doctor or pharmacist. Pay attention to maximum dosage and frequency warnings – more is not better when it comes to medicine.

4. Directions

Crucial information: how often and how much to take, based on weight and age. When giving medicine to children, always look for the child’s dose – don’t just decrease the adult dose. If you have questions, ask the pharmacist or call your doctor. With liquid medicines, use the dropper or cup in the package to measure your dose; kitchen-measuring devices are not as accurate.

TIP: When you open the package at home, make sure the directions are written on the medicine bottle itself. If not, keep the original packaging box for future reference.

5. Caplets vs. tablets vs. liquid?

  • Young children or others unable to swallow pills may choose liquids, granules or chewables.
  • Medication that dissolves on or under the tongue (like Claritin® RediTabs) enters the bloodstream through mucus membranes, which delivers relief more quickly than one that is swallowed and must be processed in the stomach. These medicines are an option for those who have difficulty swallowing.
  • Softgels and Liqui-Gels contain a liquid medicine that gets into the bloodstream more quickly than most coated tablets. They are smooth and easy to swallow.
  • Caplets and tablets with a coating are easier to swallow than those without, which may be slightly powdery. The coating also reduces the danger of stomach upset.
  • “Enteric” or “safety” coating is used for extended-release medicines. That means the medicines last longer than others, but they are also slower to take effect. These medicines are processed in the intestine, rather than the stomach.

Beware marketing claims

“Non-drowsy” does not mean that it will keep you alert. It simply means that the drug contains fewer products known to cause drowsiness. Be aware that drowsiness side effects vary among individuals.

“Extra strength” or “Max” mean the recommended dose contains a higher concentration of medicine than usual – but maybe not more than similar products. Find out exactly how much by checking the “Drug Facts” label.

“PM” usually means the drug contains an antihistamine or ingredients that can cause drowsiness as a side effect. Be sure to compare active ingredients with other medicines you take, especially allergy meds. If you need a sleeping pill, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

“All Day” doesn’t necessarily mean that symptom relief will last for 24 hours. Some extended-release drugs last only 8 or 12 hours. Check the Drug Facts label for specifics.

“Over the counter” does not mean it is safer than a prescription brand. There are certain medications that are over the counter that can be addictive and have cardiovascular side effects such as oxymetazoline or pseudoephedrine. This is why it is important to tell your physician about any medication or supplement you take and not assume it is safe simply because it is more accessible to you.

Reviewed by Purvi Parikh, MD