The Hidden Dangers of Self-Medicating with OTC Drugs

By James Campbell, MD, Guest Columnist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently unveiled guidelines for primary care physicians on the use of opioids for chronic pain. Not surprisingly, the guidelines urge physicians to first try non-pharmacologic and non-opioid treatments before resorting to opioid therapy.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with pain on a daily basis, it’s likely you’re not a stranger to over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription pain medications such as naproxen (brand name Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

In fact, most of my patients with chronic pain began their quest for relief with a cocktail of OTC pain relievers, muscle relaxants and even alcohol, before seeking professional help and eventually graduating to prescription treatments such as opioids, anti-depressants and anticonvulsants.

While OTC pain medications are generally safe when taken at their recommended doses, it’s all too common for patients to unknowingly put themselves at risk of a fatal accidental overdose or serious drug-drug interactions by mixing OTC pain medications or taking them in combination with prescription treatments for pain or other common health conditions.

Given the sheer magnitude of serious adverse events and fatalities associated with opioids, the hidden, yet preventable dangers of the pain medications on your pharmacy shelves are not often discussed.

Let’s take one of the most common OTC pain relievers: acetaminophen. When used as directed within the advised dosing guidelines, acetaminophen is safe and effective. However, if a person takes more than one medication that contains acetaminophen and exceeds the maximum recommended dose, they may be at risk of serious liver damage.

This happens so often that acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of calls to poison control centers in the United States -- more than 100,000 instances per year – and are responsible for more than 56,000 emergency room visits.

In fact, in 2011, in an effort to reduce the risk of severe liver injury from acetaminophen overdose, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked drug manufacturers to limit the strength of acetaminophen in prescription medications, including combination acetaminophen and opioid products, to no more than 325 mg per tablet, capsule or other dosage unit.

Then in 2014, the FDA recommended that health care professionals discontinue prescribing and dispensing prescription combination products that contain more than 325 mg of acetaminophen.

While the FDA’s efforts may help curb accidental overdose related to prescription medications that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol with codeine, for example), it does little to address the risks of OTC acetaminophen or other OTC pain medications such as ibuprofen, a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and injury, and cardiovascular side effects when taken on a chronic basis.

Drug Interactions

In addition to the risk of overdose, people taking multiple OTC and prescription medications for pain and other conditions are also at risk of serious drug-drug interactions. Simply put, any “drug” – whether it be a medicine, vitamin, supplement or even alcohol – that enters your body and alters your natural internal chemistry has the potential to interact or alter the intended effect or unintended side effect of other medications.

Even though most medications are accompanied by warnings about combining them with other drugs, most vitamins and supplements are not -- so, unless you’re a licensed medical professional, it’s virtually impossible to recognize the potential for drug-drug interactions.

If you’re using OTC medications, whether alone or with prescription medications, to cope with pain on a daily basis, here are three precautionary steps you can take to safeguard yourself against the risk of accidental overdose or drug-drug interactions.

1) Recognize that ALL medications, whether OTC or prescription, can cause harm if used improperly, and the fact that some medications are available without a prescription does not mean they are inherently safe. Read the labels that come with your medications. Tylenol, Advil and Vicodin are household names, so it can be easy to overlook their “generic” names (or the active ingredient in each).

For example, the generic name for Tylenol is acetaminophen, while that of Vicodin is acetaminophen hydrocodone. Without close examination of either label, a person taking Vicodin and Tylenol together could be inadvertently exceeding the recommended dosage of acetaminophen.

2) Consult a medical professional before you take more than one medication on a daily basis. If your chronic pain is being treated by a physician, be sure to tell them (even if it’s on your medical history) about any OTC or prescription medications you are currently taking. This includes vitamins and other supplements that may seem harmless, but could interact with your pain medications.

3) If you are independently treating your chronic pain, make a list of all the medications, vitamins and supplements you take on a regular basis and share them with your local pharmacist. Pharmacists can identify potential drug-drug interactions like taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen on a long-term basis, which can result in an increased risk of developing kidney problems.

The American Chronic Pain Association also recommends using the same pharmacy for all your prescriptions, so that the pharmacist can screen health information and current medications to avoid the pitfalls of overdose and drug interactions.

As a neurosurgeon with a special interest in pain for over 30 years, I’m empathetic to the daily struggle that patients face and their desperate quest for relief, seeking anything and everything that can simply make the pain stop.

For the patients who are fighting this seemingly endless battle with pain without the help of a medical professional, I hope I’ve provided some useful information and practical advice to help avoid serious risks associated with self-medicating. However, people living with moderate to severe chronic pain may benefit from a consultation with a licensed pain management specialist, who can help guide you toward steps that will help reduce your pain. 

James Campbell, MD, has spent the last 30 years pioneering efforts to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with chronic pain. 

Dr. Campbell is professor emeritus of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center - one of the largest pain research centers in the U.S. He is also a former president of the American Pain Society. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Education Campaign Launched for OTC Pain Relievers

By Pat Anson, Editor

You’ve probably seen the numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 47,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014. Over 60 percent of them involved some type of opioid, a category that includes both prescribed pain medications and illegal drugs such as heroin.

Rarely mentioned by the CDC is the number of Americans harmed by over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Acetaminophen overdoses kill about 150 Americans every year and send 78,000 to the hospital.

With opioids becoming harder to obtain for chronic pain sufferers, many are turning to OTC pain relievers – often excessively. A recent survey of pain patients found that 43% knowingly took more than the recommended dose of OTC pain medicine and 28% experienced complications from an overdose.

To help consumers learn more about the risks posed by OTC pain medications, the Alliance for Aging Research has released two animated videos about how to safely choose, take, and store OTC pain relievers. They explain the difference between acetaminophen – which is widely found in products like Tylenol and Nyquil – and NSAIDs, which includes both ibuprofen and aspirin.

"With so many options, it is important for someone to choose an OTC medication that does the best job of treating their pain, while also being aware of its potential risks to their health," said Lindsay Clarke, Vice-President of Health Programs for the Alliance for Aging.

"For older adults, understanding their options is even more important, as age may increase the risk of certain OTC pain medication side effects. These films offer a great overview of what someone needs to know before taking their OTC pain medication."

The videos were produced with support from McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the maker of Tylenol and Motrin.

A survey of over 1,000 pain sufferers by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) found that many routinely ignore OTC medicine labels, putting them at risk of serious side effects such as stomach bleeding, ulcers, liver damage, and even death.

"Pain is incredibly personal, but taking more than the recommended dose of OTC pain medicine can cause significant stomach and intestinal damage among other complications," said Byron Cryer, associate dean at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

Gastroenterologists say most patients who experience complications from overdoses of OTC medicine are trying to manage chronic pain or arthritis. Eight out of ten (79%) also report taking multiple symptom OTC medication in the past year for allergies, cold or flu symptoms – which can greatly increase their exposure to both acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

“It is a growing concern because people living with chronic pain and taking multiple medicines often don’t recognize the side-effects of taking too much,” explained Charles Melbern Wilcox, MD, professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.