Minor illness and mild aches or pains are common. It is useful to keep a few medicines at home in case you need something when you can't get to a pharmacy. Always read the labels carefully and follow the instructions, and store the medicines out of the reach of children. Your pharmacist is a good person to give you more information about over-the-counter medicines which do not need a prescription from your doctor. See your doctor if your symptoms get worse or do not go away.
Minor illness is common, especially in young children. Symptoms often begin when pharmacies are closed. Here are some suggestions of medicines that are useful to keep at home just in case they are needed.
- Before taking a medicine, always read the packet label and the leaflet inside the packet. This is for instructions on how to take the medicine and on who should not take the medicine, and for a list of possible side-effects.
- Remember, children will need a different dose from adults, and a different dose depending on their age. Therefore, always check the label for the correct dose.
- Keep all medicines out of the reach of children.
You can buy the following, without a prescription, from pharmacies:
Paracetamol eases pain. It also reduces high temperature (fever). It comes in tablet form for adults and older children and as a liquid for young children and babies. You can also obtain soluble tablets and melt-in-the-mouth tablets. If you have young children, paracetamol is perhaps the most important medicine to keep in at all times. Paracetamol is safe at normal doses but is harmful if you take too much (overdose). Therefore, it is extremely important to check the right dose for the person taking paracetamol. Be careful not to exceed the maximum amount recommended on the packet.
These are painkillers which also reduce inflammation. Most need a prescription but you can buy ibuprofen from pharmacies and supermarkets. This is helpful for muscular aches and sprains and can be used to relieve period pain. Like paracetamol, ibuprofen also reduces a fever. Ibuprofen also comes in tablet, soluble tablet, melt-in-the-mouth and liquid forms. There are many brands of ibuprofen. The dose advised varies with age.
Anti-inflammatory painkillers should not be used by certain people - for example, if you have, or have had, a stomach or duodenal ulcer. These painkillers should be taken with food if possible, because they can cause irritation if taken on an empty stomach. If you develop stomach pain or heartburn after taking ibuprofen tablets, you should stop them. They may interact with some prescribed medication, so check with your pharmacist if you are not sure whether you should take them.
Ibuprofen and some other anti-inflammatory painkillers are also available as a gel or foam. These can be rubbed directly into the painful area. They are used for painful joints if you have rheumatoid arthritis or degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis). They can also be used for sprains and muscle injuries.
These ease the symptoms of hay fever and other allergies - for example, hives (urticaria), itch, sneezing, watering eyes, and a runny nose. They can be used to reduce the pain and swelling from wasp or bee stings.
Some antihistamines may cause drowsiness - for example, chlorphenamine (Piriton®). These may be useful for taking at bedtime, particularly for itchy conditions such as eczema or chickenpox. There are several types which cause less drowsiness and are better for during the day - for example, loratadine and cetirizine.
Antihistamine can also be bought as a cream, which can be rubbed on to stings and bites.
These help to ease indigestion and heartburn. There are various types of antacids - for example, sodium bicarbonate, magnesium trisilicate, aluminium or magnesium hydroxide. They work by neutralising the acid content of the stomach. You can also buy more powerful medicines which reduce acid in the stomach - for example, ranitidine and esomeprazole.
If you need to use antacids on a regular basis, you should see your doctor to discuss this.
Hydrocortisone cream is a mild steroid cream. Steroids reduce inflammation. Hydrocortisone can be bought in pharmacies, to treat inflammation of the skin (dermatitis), insect stings and eczema. Hydrocortisone cream should not be used on the face unless prescribed by your doctor specifically for use on the face.
If you have itching or dryness of the skin it may just need some emollient cream such as E45®. It is useful to soothe dry or itchy skin.
It is useful to have an antiseptic cream at home. If you use this on minor scrapes, cuts and bites, they are less likely to become infected. Commonly available antiseptic creams include Savlon® and Germolene®.
Other useful items
If anyone in your family is prone to mouth soreness or mouth ulcers it is a good idea to keep something to help with that such as Bonjela®.
It is worth keeping a variety of plasters at home in case of minor cuts and grazes. Use hypo-allergenic ones if anyone in your house gets a rash with plasters.
You may also find thin adhesive strips such as Steri-strips® useful for cuts if you are able to use them. These pull the edges of a wound together. (If a cut does not stop bleeding after you have applied pressure and a plaster or Steri-strips®, you should attend your local Accident and Emergency Department. Continue to press on the cut until you get there to limit the bleeding.)
A pair of tweezers may be handy for extracting splinters.
Your pharmacist is the best source of advice and information on medicines which can be bought over the counter.
See your doctor if you are needing to take any of these medicines on a regular basis. This is to check there is no underlying cause for your problem.
Further reading and references
; NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)
; NICE CKS, September 2015 (UK access only)
; NICE CKS, September 2015 (UK access only)
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