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Friday, January 9

Part 7, Shoot Yourself in the Foot Health Care: Let's play mad chemist with Over the Counter medications

I'll assume that a great many people who closely follow medical news are well aware that over the counter (OTC) painkillers can raise blood pressure; for those readers who missed the memo here is an article at MedicineNet, both written and edited by MDs, that details the risks.

The article underscores the danger of doctoring oneself with medications about which one knows nothing at all -- and often about which science knows little. 

We live in an era of cheap, nonprescription nostrums that take up rows of shelves in pharmacies and grocery stores.  I think the consumer's unconscious assumption is that anything so readily available and sold for many years is safe.  Maybe so, if taken for a very short period on rare occasion. But the tendency is to start routinely popping OTCs if there are chronic conditions that the person doesn't think require a doctor's attention.

The danger of this practice skyrockets when OTCs for different 'minor' conditions are routinely taken on a regular basis; e.g., pain, allergy, headache, stomach upset, sinus problem, etc.

Add to this the odd assumption that because it's a natural supplement it can't have a 'drug' reaction with OTC drugs -- although doctors have made their patients aware of some of the known negative interactions with certain natural substances and prescription drugs.

The assumption extends to creams and patches for pain relief.

But it's all chemicals, and chemistry is a long way from figuring out how all these chemicals, whether made in a lab or distilled from a natural source, interact in the human body -- and at what times of times of day and what amount, and whether the effects of the interactions are cumulative.

And in the end it's throwing darts blindfolded. This was graphically illustrated by the recent newsmaking horror story of the teenager who had a rare reaction to an antibiotic that was in effect burning her body from the inside out.  The odds of that happening are astronomical but there's no accounting for how the individual body reacts to medicines.   

This says nothing about dangerous interactions between medicinal drugs, both prescription and OTC, and the chemicals in food ingredients, both artificial and natural, and chemicals found inside the home and office.

What's the tiebreaker, given that OTCs can be a godsend in an emergency?  Maybe human nature's famous three-time rule can be applied here.  Three stomach upsets, or three bouts of stuffy nose, etc., within a reasonably short period of time and hie oneself to a physician to investigate what could be causing the condition.

Working against this common sense is widespread distrust today of establishment medicine, which has probably followed the same trajectory as distrust for big government. 

Of course medicine is a very imperfect art but modern medicine is bound up with very powerful chemicals that unlike the general run of government gaffes don't leave room for mistakes and do-overs.  From that view it's better to seek the help of a licensed medical practitioner than play mad chemist with one's body.  However, the great availability of OTCs has allowed many people to avoid taking this sensible approach.  Thus, yet another example of using the benefits of the modern era to shoot oneself in the foot.

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