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8 essential over-the-counter medications to keep in your medicine cabinet

Take care of colds, upset stomachs, minor injuries and more at home with these OTC staples.

Not every illness or injury requires a trip to the doctor or prescription medication. Most of the time, you can treat minor aches and pains, colds and upset stomachs at home with a little rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

But you’ll want to stock your medicine cabinet with the right OTC medications, so that you’ll have what you need when you need it.

“Having a well-stocked medicine cabinet is important,” says Bruce Y. Lee, M.D. He’s a professor of health policy and management at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy and executive director of Public Health Informatics, Computational and Operations Research (PHICOR). “When you’re sick, you might not have time to go to a store,” Dr. Lee says. “Or you might be feeling run down and not have the wherewithal to go get some of these items. And in some cases, it may be an emergency.”

Plus, if you treat yourself at home, you can help stop the spread of illness to others. Below, find out what you need to have in your medicine cabinet.

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How to manage your medicine cabinet

Regularly check what’s inside your medicine cabinet — at least once a year, and check expiration dates. Expired medications won’t necessarily make you sick. But they can lose their effectiveness due to chemical changes that happen over time, or they may no longer be safe to take.

Dr. Lee suggests that you also check the expiration date of any OTC medications you buy at the store. “It’s a good idea to be diligent,” he says. “You don’t know how long it’s been sitting on the shelf or in transit. Don’t assume things in the store are not past their expiration date or close to it.”

If you have expired medications, throw them away properly by following the guidelines for safe disposal. The safest way is to drop them off at a local drug take-back program. Many police stations and pharmacies have drop boxes for old medications.

To dispose of medications at home:

  1. Remove the medication from its original packaging.
  2. Mix it with something foul-tasting, such as dirt or kitty litter. This helps stop children and animals from digging medications out of the garbage.
  3. Put it in a sealable container and throw it in the trash.

Once you’ve cleared out your old or expired medications, it’s time to restock your medicine cabinet. Here are 8 essentials.

OTC medication #1: Bismuth subsalicylate

What it is and what it treats: This is the go-to medication for stomach and digestion troubles. “It coats the lining of your stomach/gastrointestinal (GI) tract to provide you with relief,” explains Dr. Lee.

You can take it for gastrointestinal problems such as:

Important notes: Be sure to follow the instructions on the package and stick to proper dosing. If you take other medications, ask your doctor if it’s safe to take bismuth subsalicylate. “Anything that coats/lines the stomach/GI tract or affects acidity levels in the gut may affect absorption of other medications you may be taking,” says Dr. Lee.

Also, check with your doctor about possible drug interactions it may cause. Certain drug interactions can lead to mild or severe side effects.

OTC medication #2: Hydrocortisone cream

What it is and what it treats: Hydrocortisone cream is a topical steroid that’s rubbed directly on the spot that’s irritated. Steroids treat inflammation by stopping or slowing the immune system’s response to inflammatory triggers.

“Hydrocortisone cream can be used for a lot of things that cause inflammation and swelling, like allergic reactions,” says Dr. Lee. It can also be used for:

  • Bug bites
  • Eczema
  • Poison ivy/oak
  • Rashes

Important notes: While hydrocortisone creams can help reduce certain types of inflammation, Dr. Lee notes that it might not address the root cause of the problem. For that, he suggests getting in touch with your doctor, if your symptoms don’t go away within a week or so.

Also, you don’t want to put hydrocortisone cream on open wounds because it could hinder healing, says Dr. Lee. You also should pay attention to the strength of the steroid cream. “Certain strengths should not be used on areas where the skin is thinner, like on the face,” says Dr. Lee.

OTC medication #3: Ibuprofen

What it is and what it treats: Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). That’s a type of OTC medication that relieves pain caused by inflammation, such as pain in your joints or from injuries, says Dr. Lee. Common uses for Ibuprofen include:

  • Relieving minor aches, such as muscle aches, toothaches, backaches and headaches
  • Relieving pain from menstrual cramps
  • Relieving pain, swelling and stiffness from arthritis
  • Reducing fever

Other common pain relievers include aspirin and acetaminophen (explained below).

Important notes: The most common side effect of an NSAID such as ibuprofen is stomach upset. Ibuprofen stops your body from producing chemicals that cause swelling and inflammation in response to injuries. But those same chemicals are important for maintaining and repairing your stomach lining, explains Dr. Lee. So ibuprofen can make your stomach more susceptible to damage.

If you have a sensitive stomach or issues with acid reflux or ulcers, you might want to take a different pain reliever. Your doctor can guide you on which pain reliever will be best for you.

OTC medication #4: Aspirin

What it is and what it treats: Aspirin is another NSAID pain reliever. It can be used to treat many of the same ailments as ibuprofen. Aspirin can also be used to prevent and treat a heart attack and/or stroke. It thins the blood, helping to prevent blood clots and blockages in blood vessels, explains Dr. Lee.

Important notes: Because it’s a blood thinner, aspirin can increase your risk of bleeding. It can also cause stomach irritation. Ask your doctor if aspirin is right for you, whether it’s for heart health or pain relief.

OTC medication #5: Acetaminophen

What it is and what it treats: This is another pain reliever and fever reducer. Acetaminophen relieves pain, but it doesn’t reduce inflammation the way NSAIDs do, so it’s not as effective for injuries or arthritic pain.

Acetaminophen is often included in cold medications as a pain reliever and fever reducer. It doesn’t cause stomach irritation, so it’s a good choice for a headache or other mild pain if you have a sensitive stomach.

Important notes: Follow dosing directions carefully, warns Dr. Lee. “While it can provide pain relief, be careful. People regularly go to the ER after overdosing on acetaminophen,” he says. Too much of it can also cause liver damage, adds Dr. Lee, especially when combined with alcohol. It’s not a good idea to take it if you have more than 3 drinks every day.

As you can see, the pain relievers ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen each have slightly different uses and certain advantages and disadvantages. You may not need all 3 in your medicine cabinet. Ask your doctor which is best for you and if there are any you should avoid.

OTC medication #6: Antibiotic ointment (neomycin, polymyxin and bacitracin)

What it is and what it treats: For scrapes and cuts, Dr. Lee recommends that you have an antibacterial ointment in your medicine cabinet and first aid kit. It can be applied directly to open wounds to prevent infection and aid healing. Some ointments may include an analgesic, a drug that relieves pain and inflammation.

Important notes: While antibiotic ointment can be used to treat minor cuts, burns and scrapes, you should call your doctor or get emergency care for more serious injuries, such as:

  • Animal bites
  • Deep cuts
  • Puncture wounds
  • Serious burns

Dr. Lee warns against using this on areas close to the eyes, mouth and nose. And you’ll still want to clean the wound thoroughly before applying an ointment. You can do so with soap and water.

OTC medication #7: Diphenhydramine

What it is and what it treats: Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine used to treat allergic reactions. Antihistamines block the effects of histamines, which are chemicals released by the immune system in response to something it thinks is dangerous.

Diphenhydramine can help ease seasonal allergy symptoms, such as sneezing and congestion, and minor allergic reactions, such as itchiness or hives. For more severe allergic reactions, call your doctor or seek emergency medical care.

Diphenhydramine is also found in ointments that can treat minor allergic skin reactions such as bug bites and rashes caused by poison ivy or poison oak.

Important notes: Diphenhydramine can cause drowsiness, notes Dr. Lee, so it’s not a good idea to operate heavy machinery or drive after taking it. On the flip side, it’s sometimes used because of that drowsiness. Case in point: It’s often included in “PM” versions of medications, such as Advil® PM, to help you sleep.

Be sure to follow dosing directions carefully, especially for children. Overdosing can cause serious side effects, including:

  • Coma
  • Heart problems
  • Seizures

In extremely rare cases, it can even lead to death, so it’s best to consult your doctor before using it.

OTC medication #8: Combination cold medication

What it is and what it treats: Cold medications include several different drugs to relieve a variety of cold and flu symptoms, including:

  • Body aches
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sneezing and runny nose
  • Sore throat

Important notes: Check the “active ingredients” on the package so that you know which drugs the medication contains and how much of each it has. Be careful of other medications you take on top of a cold medication — you may be doubling up on a drug.

For example, many cold medications include a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen. If you take Tylenol on top of that, you could end up taking more acetaminophen than recommended. That can lead to potentially dangerous side effects.

It’s always good to check with your doctor before taking an OTC medication. It may not be safe for you, depending on what other medications you take, OTC or prescription. That’s because 2 or more of your medications can interact with one another and may lead to potentially harmful side effects.

The bottom line: Your path to feeling better doesn’t always have to start with a trip to the doctor or the emergency room. You can treat common cold symptoms and minor aches, pains, and burns with medications in your medicine cabinet. If your symptoms get worse — or you’re worried that your aches and pains haven’t gone away — consult your doctor.

Need a health insurance plan? Enter your ZIP code to search available plans or call a licensed agent at 1-844-211-7730.


The article above is provided as general information only. It is not intended to diagnose or recommend treatment of any illness, disease or condition. You should consult a qualified medical professional if you have questions or need more information.

Compliance code: 50497-X-1223


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U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA warns about serious problems with high doses of the allergy medicine diphenhydramine (Benadryl).” September 24, 2020. Retrieved from
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines.” April 21, 2021. Retrieved from

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