Medicine cabinet must-haves

Your pharmacist-approved guide to the drugstore’s best remedies

We saw you there with your doggy pyjamas peeking out from under your coat. It was midnight, and you grabbed the first bottle you thought might ease your throbbing head so you could snooze soundly.

Making the late-night drugstore dash again? If so, chances are you may be flushing money down the toilet. Canadians spent $3.6 billion in 2003 on over-the-counter medications, but we’re not always buying the best ones, says Anne Marie Picone Ford, a pharmacist in Moncton, N.B. So that you’ll know what to look for the next time you’re in need, we asked pharmacists – Picone Ford, Donna Kowalishin in Edmonton and Raymond Bannister in Saskatoon – for advice when it comes to stocking up on the best medicine for women.

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You have a cold

You need a decongestant to clear clogged passages and an analgesic to relieve pain (research shows cough medication is ineffective)

What to look for For stuffiness, try an oral decongestant with pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed Decongestant Nasal & Sinus. If you need an all-in-one remedy, try Tylenol Cold or Tylenol Sinus. It includes the pain reliever acetaminophen, says Picone Ford.

You have allergies

You need an antihistamine to block the extra production of naturally occurring histamine

What to look for Claritin (loratadine) is a good choice because it doesn’t produce any drowsy side effects, says Picone Ford. If you have long-term allergies or sinusitis problems, a less expensive alternative is Chlor-Tripolon (chlorpheniramine).

You have diarrhea

You need an antiperistaltic medication to slow the movement of the intestines

What to look for Choose Imodium (loperamide) or Kaopectate (attapulgite), says Kowalishin. And because you lose a lot of fluids, she suggests keeping an oral rehydration solution such as Gastrolyte (dextrose and electrolytes) on hand. It’s a powder you mix with water to replace your fluids and rebalance important electrolytes in your body.

You have a minor cut or burn

You need an antibiotic ointment to stop the growth of bacteria

What to look for Choose an ointment instead of a cream because the latter doesn’t stay on the skin as long. Try Polysporin ointment (bacitracin and polymyxin B). Or buy a generic – often less expensive – antibiotic ointment with the same active ingredients that do the same thing, according to our experts.

You have a wart

You need a topical salicylic acid to slowly burn off the wart

What to look for Choose a product that contains at least 20 per cent salicylic acid, such as Compound W or Duofilm. When applying the liquid or gel, protect the surrounding skin with petroleum jelly.

You have heartburn

You need an antacid to neutralize the buildup of stomach acid

What to look for For mild cases, choose single-ingredient medications such as Tums (calcium carbonate). If you want to neutralize stomach acid and also reduce gas pain, try Maalox (magnesium hydroxide, aluminum hydroxide and simethicone). If you’re willing to spend a little more, try Zantac 75 (ranitidine).

You have hemorrhoids

You need a topical anesthetic to block itching and an astringent to cleanse and cool the area

What to look for You can try a cream or a suppository, says Picone Ford. Preparation H (shark liver oil and phenylephrine) and Anusol (zinc sulfate) are available in both forms. “These two products help reduce the swelling, and they have a bit of anesthetic in them to relieve the pain.”

You have menstrual pain

You need an analgesic for pain relief or a combination of an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory to also reduce the swelling and tenderness of muscles and tissues

What to look for Picone Ford recommends ibuprofen-only products, such as Advil, instead of those geared to treating multiple symptoms, such as Midol, which may also contain as much caffeine as two diet colas.

You have a headache

You need an analgesic to relieve pain or a combined analgesic and anti-inflammatory

What to look for Picone Ford recommends Tylenol (acetaminophen) because it has few side effects and is easy on your stomach. Motrin (ibuprofen) is another good choice. When buying medications, choose regular strength over extra strength. “You can always take two if you need to,” she says.

You have a yeast infection

You need an antifungal to block further growth of the yeast fungus

What to look for Many women find creams have a cooling sensation, providing direct relief, says Picone Ford. Bannister adds that he finds women get better results with three-day kits, such as Monistat (miconazole) ovules or Canesten (clotrimazole) ovules plus cream.

Your medicine safety checklist

When was the last time you read the instructions on the side of the Aspirin bottle? You may think nothing of popping a pain reliever for a headache or menstrual cramps, but even the most common over-the-counter (otc) medications come with precautions. Before reaching into the medicine cabinet, keep these safeguards in mind:

Don’t mix and match Use the same pharmacy to get all your prescriptions filled. It will have a complete list of your prescription medications on file, so the pharmacist can check and confirm that you won’t have any conflicts with particular otc drugs. “If you have certain conditions or are on certain prescription medications, there are [potential] drug interactions,” explains Priti Flanagan, a clinical pharmacy specialist for Langley Home Health in Langley, B.C. For example, if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure or asthma, or are on thyroid medication, you should stay away from decongestants, says Anne Marie Picone Ford, a pharmacist in Moncton, N.B.

Reduce health risks to your baby Pregnant or breastfeeding? Check with your pharmacist before buying otc medications, or look them up at www., a health-promotion website for mothers and expectant mothers. Women who are breastfeeding, for example, should not take Aspirin because it may cause Reye’s syndrome, a life-threatening condition causing brain and liver damage to the child, says Picone Ford.

Test the drug first Take all medications, even those labelled as non-drowsy, in a safe environment (read: not before a three-hour drive) to gauge your reaction, says Picone Ford. Because everyone responds to medications differently, it’s important to see how you react to new drugs before you do anything that requires a fair amount of concentration, she adds.

Watch the dosage Don’t take medications beyond the recommended dose on the package. Continually taking a painkiller could, for instance, turn your initial headache into a rebound headache – a type of headache caused by overuse of medication. Another example: long-term use of acetaminophen can trigger liver damage. If your symptoms continue beyond the recommended period indicated on the medication’s instructions, it’s time to visit the doctor. Keep track of reactions Flanagan suggests keeping a record of the medications you’ve used, along with your reactions to them. The list will help you and your pharmacist determine whether you are having a true allergic reaction to the medication or experiencing a side effect. The difference is important: for example, if you have an allergic reaction to codeine, with symptoms such as vomiting and convulsions, then there are other chemically related drugs you shouldn’t take, explains Flanagan. Tell your pharmacist about reactions you’ve had – she may be able to keep that information on file for you.

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