What you need to know about over-the-counter medicine


Over-the-counter medicine, also known as OTC or nonprescription medicine, is medicine you can purchase without a prescription. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says these medicines are safe and effective when you follow the directions on the label, as well as the direction of your doctor.¹ However, there are important things to know when choosing which OTC medicines to use or give to your family.

Remember, not all OTC medicines are suitable for people with certain medical conditions. It’s important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions with conditions such as congestive heart failure or diabetes.

Know how much acetaminophen you’re taking

Acetaminophen is commonly taken to relieve pain and reduce fever. You might recognize acetaminophen as the active ingredient in Tylenol®, but there are actually more than 600 prescription and over-the-counter medicines that contain acetaminophen. This can be a problem, because taking too much acetaminophen can lead to serious liver damage. Doctors recommend never taking 2 medications that contain acetaminophen at the same time, and carefully following dosage instructions. Also, ask your doctor before taking acetaminophen if you drink 3 or more alcoholic drinks per day.²

Ask before you take aspirin off-label

You might have taken aspirin in the past to relieve a headache or fever. However, a daily dose of aspirin has also been shown to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke in people who have poor blood flow to the brain, or a heart or blood vessel disease.³ Aspirin doesn’t come with directions for this use, so it is important to ask your doctor if it’s right for you.

Choose the right allergy medicine

Seasonal allergies can make going outside a recipe for red eyes and a runny nose, but there are a variety of over-the-counter medicines that can help. If you take an antihistamine, make sure to check if it might make you drowsy before you drive your car. Avoid using decongestant nose sprays or drops for more than a few days, because these might eventually make your congestion worse.⁴ If you’re thinking about taking multiple medicines to relieve different symptoms, check their labels to make sure their active ingredients aren’t the same.⁵

Consider alternative cold medicines

If you’ve tried to buy a medicine containing pseudoephedrine, commonly sold as Sudafed®, you’ve probably noticed that it’s kept behind the counter. Even though this medicine can be bought without a prescription, its sale is limited because it can be abused. However, many companies have made new versions of their medicines that contain different ingredients, which make them a good alternative for relieving a stuffy nose.⁶

If you are a Humana member, then your plan might offer a benefit allowance that can be used to purchase OTC medicine. Check your plan to see if you receive this benefit.

This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor to determine what is right for you.


  1. “Understanding Over-the-Counter Medicines,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, May 16, 2018, accessed May 18, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/buying-using-medicine-safely/understanding-over-counter-medicines.
  2. "Don’t Double Up on Acetaminophen," U.S. Food and Drug Administration, January 26, 2018, accessed May 2, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/dont-double-acetaminophen.
  3. “Aspirin for Reducing Your Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke: Know the Facts,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, November 16, 2017, accessed May 2, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/safe-daily-use-aspirin/aspirin-reducing-your-risk-heart-attack-and-stroke-know-facts.
  4. “Seasonal Allergies: Which Medication is Right for You?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, March 29, 2018, accessed May 2, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/seasonal-allergies-which-medication-right-you.
  5. “Allergy Relief for Your Child,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, November 6, 2017, accessed May 2, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/allergy-relief-your-child.
  6. “Legal Requirements for the Sale and Purchase of Drug Products Containing Pseudoephedrine, Ephedrine, and Phenylpropanolamine,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, November 24, 2017, accessed May 10, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/legal-requirements-sale-and-purchase-drug-products-containing-pseudoephedrine-ephedrine-and.


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