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?
Pill or call?
Photo: Adam Voorhes

The Problem: You're signed up for a spin class tonight, but your legs are aching from yesterday's challenging workout.

Pill or Doc? Neither. If you're tempted to pop an OTC painkiller to power through your next exercise session, know this: A study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that runners who took ibuprofen before and during a race to reduce muscle soreness actually experienced an increase in inflammation. The study was done on ultramarathoners, but "this can happen to anyone who exercises," says coauthor David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University. "Our research suggests that the best medicine is fruits, vegetables, and fish. These foods are rich in compounds like flavonoids and omega-3s, which are naturally anti-inflammatory." For immediate relief, icing three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes can help reduce soreness. If discomfort lasts more than a week, head to your doctor to rule out serious injury.

The Problem: You get headaches almost daily. They aren't as bad as migraines, but you can't remember the last time you didn't take something to ease the throbbing.

Pill or Doc? Doc. Taking OTC pain meds at least 15 days a month for more than three months can increase the risk of chronic headaches, because overuse of medication can lead to changes in the pain-processing regions of the brain. Laying off the painkillers will likely lead to more intense pounders for a few days, but getting the meds out of your system should put an end to the vicious cycle.

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