Pills coming out of a phone
Photo: Adam Voorhes
No one has time to run to the doctor for every stuffy nose or aching muscle, but relying on over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for seemingly minor health problems sometimes does more harm than good. In certain cases, medication can make symptoms worse or mask more complicated conditions. Read this, then decide which route—a pill or an appointment—is best for you.

The Problem: You woke up with congestion, a runny nose, and a phlegmy cough.


Pill or Doc? Pill. For up to one week while you ride out a cold, take a cold medicine that contains an antihistamine (to dry out passages) and a decongestant (to open airways), says Marc Leavey, MD, an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. And don't forget to drink plenty of fluids. Though doctors may prescribe Z-Paks (six tablets of azithromycin, the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the United States) to treat cold viruses, they're effective only against bacterial infections. "Some physicians may recommend antibiotics before they receive a patient's test results," says Leavey. "The intention is to get a jump on a smoldering infection, but in many cases, the drugs simply aren't necessary."

The Problem: You've been taking OTC acid reflux meds for weeks, but with every meal the burn returns.


Pill or Doc? Doc. If proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)—drugs that reduce the production of stomach acid—are no match for your heartburn after two weeks, continuing to take them could decrease your body's ability to absorb calcium, potentially putting you at risk for bone fractures. According to the label, nonprescription PPIs should be taken no more than 14 days straight within a four-month span; however, a 2011 study found that more than 60 percent of consumers take PPIs incorrectly or more than necessary. Have your primary doctor refer you to a gastroenterologist, who can get to the bottom of what's causing your persistent heartburn; she may suggest stronger prescription meds or dietary changes (fried foods, coffee, and alcohol are all common heartburn triggers). The problem could also be linked to a more serious condition—like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which, over time, can damage your esophagus and put you at increased risk for cancer.

Next: Should you take ibuprophen to get through a workout?