One of our primary goals at WellBe is to help people get to the root cause of their health issues, rather than just treating the symptoms with medications that may have their own serious side effects. Given that, it should be no surprise that we’re generally wary of most over the counter medication. But, just as with prescription medications, not all OTC meds are created equal, and some are way worse than others for your health. Read on to learn the 5 unhealthiest drugstore medications, including the scary side effects of acid reflux medication, some concerning side effects of Advil, and more.
Colds are the worst. You feel run down, congested, achy, feverish, and to make matters worse, there’s not a lot you can do about it. The common cold is famously incurable, and really all you can do is rest, stay hydrated, and let it run its course. That means that cold medicine isn’t actually making you better, it’s just masking the symptoms. This is bad in its own way, since you might feel artificially well enough to overexert yourself, which can in turn prolong your cold. But many cold medications also introduce new health risks and, according to a 2017 study, don’t even work.
Dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant commonly found in over the counter medication, has some more concerning long-term risks: it’s been associated with both cognitive deterioration and liver disease! If you ask us, not worth the trade-off to avoid some coughing.
Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) and diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl and other antihistamines) are also commonly found in cold meds. See below for the issues both of those present…
The Side Effects of Sleep Aids
Americans are chronically underslept, so it should be no surprise that over 9 million of us take prescription sleep aids and countless more rely on things like Benadryl or Tylenol PM to fall asleep. Sleep is incredibly important for your health and well-being, so we totally get wanting to pop a pill and get some shut-eye, but the truth is that these sleeping pills are among the least healthy types of over the counter medication.
Both Tylenol PM and Advil PM make you sleepy with diphenhydramine, which is the active ingredient in Benadryl, so they carry all of the side effects listed above. But on top of that, you also get the side effects of their other pain-relieving active ingredient: for Tylenol, that’s acetaminophen, and for Advil, that’s ibuprofen. See below for the health risks of both of these.
The Side Effects of Advil and Other Pain Relievers
Advil, Tylenol, and aspirin are so ubiquitous that people don’t think twice about popping them daily (in fact, it’s long been recommended that people take an aspirin a day as a protective measure against heart disease). That makes it all the more shocking when you learn their potential serious health risks.
But what about those innocent, candy-like antacids like Tums? The side effects of acid reflux medication can’t possibly extend to them, right? Wrong. Yummy little antacids like Tums and Rolaids can dramatically reduce healthy gut flora, seriously screwing up your gut microbiome.
The Side Effects of Digestive Aids
Having trouble with your number two situation is quite unpleasant — no argument on that here. But turning to an over the counter medication like laxatives or diarrhea remedies is definitely not the solution. Not only do they prevent you from getting to the bottom of your digestive issues (which is a big deal, since your gut is central to every aspect of your health!), they also carry some concerning health risks.
For their part, laxatives can interfere with your body’s absorption of certain nutrients, meaning that they’re actually exacerbating whatever dietary problems you may be dealing with already. If you use them for a prolonged period of time, they can also lead to an electrolyte imbalance, disturbing the sensitive levels of electrolytes like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium in your body. Since electrolytes regulate many bodily functions, an imbalance can cause serious problems, including heart arrhythmias, confusion, and seizures.
But the worst thing about this type of over the counter medication is that they simply paper over the symptoms you’re experiencing, which are your body’s way of communicating with you and telling you that something’s not right inside. Rather than taking a drug, take holistic, lifestyle-based steps to improve your gut health and suss out any food sensitivities. Once you’ve done that, you won’t have a need for digestive aids in the future.
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember About Over the Counter Medication
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it a thousand times: if you care about your long-term health (and you should), you should always, always, look to address the root cause of any health issues you experience, rather than covering them up with medication. Of course, there are times when prescription or over the counter medication is an essential part of recovery, but quite often, they just provide a BandAid for the original issue while creating additional issues of their own. It becomes an endless game of whack-a-mole rather than a journey to long-term health.
Here’s what to remember about the health risks of over the counter medication:
Americans take a lot of over the counter medication. In 2015, Americans made over 3 BILLION retail trips to buy OTC drugs. This gives you a sense of how nonchalant many people are about popping a pill to deal with a health issue.
Almost all medications, OTC or prescription, have side effects because if you think about it, these are man-made things that don’t exist in nature. When you put a man-made thing in your body that it has never seen before, there’s a good chance there will be side effects as the drug may react poorly with different microbes in your body. Many of these are short-term and merely unpleasant, but some can have a more long-term and serious impact on your health. The five most dangerous types of over the counter medication are cold medicine, sleep aids, pain relievers, heartburn and acid reflux medications, and digestive aids.
Side effects of cold medicine: the decongestant pseudoephedrine can cause high blood pressure, insomnia, and seizures. The decongestant oxymetazoline can make you more congested in the long-term and have a stimulant effect. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan can lead to cognitive decline and liver damage.
Side effects of sleep aids: the antihistamine diphenhydramine is the active ingredient in most OTC sleep aids. It’s been linked with gut and digestive issues as well as an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, among other issues.
Side effects of Advil, Tylenol, and other pain relievers: ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil, is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, as well as reduced kidney function and gastrointestinal bleeding, and mess up your gut health Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is associated with liver damage, cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk of ADHD. Aspirin can increase your risk of stroke.
Side effects of acid reflux medication: PPIs like Prilosec and Nexium are associated with a 25% increased risk of death, among other issues. H2 blockers like Zantac contain a cancer-causing substance. Even antacids like Tums and Rolaids totally mess up your gut microbiome!
Side effects of digestive medications: Laxatives can block the absorption of important nutrients and cause an electrolyte imbalance, impairing important body functions. Meanwhile, Pepto Bismol can cause a black, hairy tongue!