FDA Home Page | CDER Home Page | CDER Site Info | Contact CDER | What's New @ CDER

Medicines in My Home: Information for Students on the Safe Use of Over-the-Counter Medicines

[This booklet is also available as an Acrobat (pdf) file]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Food and Drug Administration

Image - Medicines in My Home

Medicines In My Home
Information for Students on the Safe Use of Over-the-Counter Medicines

What is over-the-counter medicine?

A medicine (drug) changes the way your body works or treats or prevents a disease.

An over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is the kind you buy without a doctor's order (prescription). Before you use any medicine, you should always talk to your parent or guardian.

The Drug Facts label

In the United States, each OTC medicine has a Drug Facts label. The Drug Facts label is there to help you and your family choose and use OTC medicines correctly and safely. All medicines, even OTC medicines, can cause side effects(unwanted or unexpected effects). But if you follow the directions on the label, you can lower your chance of side effects.

The Drug Facts label tells you:

  • The ingredients in the medicine.

  • What the medicine is for.

  • If the medicine is right for you and your problem.

  • If there are reasons to talk to your doctor first.

  • How to use your medicine.

On pages 6 and 7, you can learn about the parts of the Drug Facts label and see a sample.

Here are some safety tips and medicine facts for you and your family...

Safer by the dozen -
12 tips for using medicines safely
  1. Speak to your parent or guardian before using any medicine. Ask them about keeping a record of all the medicines and vitamins you use. You can use “My Medicine Record” at http://www.fda.gov/medsinmyhome.

  2. Read the Drug Facts label – ALL of it – and follow the directions. Use a medicine only if you know what it is and what it's for.

  1. Check the active ingredients in all your medicines. These are the parts of the medicine that make it work. Don't use two medicines with the same active ingredient at the same time, because too much can hurt you.

  2. Choose a medicine that only treats the problems you have. Otherwise, you are using extra medicine you don't need, and it might cause side effects.

  1. Tell your parent, guardian, or school nurse if you don't feel better or if you feel worse after using a medicine.

  2. Use the medicine dose listed on the label. Don't use more. If this dose doesn't help you feel better, talk to your doctor.

  3. Use medicine only as long as the label says. If you think you need the medicine for a longer time, talk to your doctor.

  4. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist if you have questions about your medicine or how it should make you feel.

  5. Tell your doctor or nurse ALL of the medicines and vitamins you use.

  6. Keep medicine in the bottle, box, or tube that it came in. That will make the directions easy to find.

  7. Keep all medicines in a safe, dry place and where they can't be seen or reached by younger children or pets. This helps medicine last longer and prevents medicine accidents.

  8. If a medicine is past the date on the package, it may not work as well. Have your parent or guardian throw away old medicines where they can't be reached by younger children and pets.

About prescription medicine:

Don't use other people's prescription medicine and don't share your prescription medicine with anyone else.

Use your prescription medicine only as directed. If you think you need a change in your medicine, talk to your doctor.

Make sure that your prescription medicines don't contain the same active ingredients as your OTC medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the active ingredients in prescription medicines.

About Prescription Medicine

How to measure your medicine

It is important to measure your medicines correctly.

  • Use the measuring spoon, cup, or syringe that comes with your medicine. It will give the most exact dose.

  • If your medicine doesn't come with a special measuring tool, ask for one at the pharmacy. A silverware spoon may hold the wrong amount of medicine.

  • Check the markings to make sure your measuring tool can measure the right dose.

Most liquid medicines are measured in teaspoons (tsp) and milliliters (mL).


5 mL = 1 teaspoon (tsp)

15 mL = 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon (TBSP)

30 mL = 1 fluid ounce (oz)

Use your weight!

  • Use your weight to find the right dose on the Drug Facts label.

  • If you don't know your weight, use your age to find the dose on the Drug Facts label.

  • Never guess a dose. If a dose for your weight or age is not listed on the label or if you can't tell how much to use, ask your pharmacist or doctor what to do.

Problems OTC medicine can treat

Pain and fever are two of the most common reasons people use OTC medicines.

There are five active ingredients used to reduce fever and to treat mild aches and pains caused by headaches, muscle aches, backaches, toothaches, menstrual cramps, and the common cold:

  • acetaminophen
  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen
  • naproxen sodium
  • ketoprofen

The last four active ingredients are all members of a drug family called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs for short.

OTC medicines can treat or prevent other health problems. Here are some examples:

  • Nasal congestion (decongestants).
  • Allergies (antihistamines).
  • Cough (cough suppressants and expectorants).
  • Stomach Upset (antacids and acid reducers).
  • Cigarette addiction (nicotine gum, lozenge, or patch).
  • Skin damage from sun (sunscreens).

More about active ingredients

Active ingredients are safer when you follow directions

The active ingredients in OTC medicines can be harmful if you don't use them as directed on the label. Take for example, the active ingredients in OTC fever and pain medicines...

  • Acetaminophen can damage your liver, especially if you use more than directed.

  • Ibuprofen, naproxen, or ketoprofen can damage your kidneys.

  • Children and teenagers shouldn't use aspirin for fever or flu because it may cause a severe illness called Reye's Syndrome.

capsule capsule capsule

Medicines with more than one active ingredient

Medicines with more than one active ingredient are usually made to treat more than one problem. Here are some examples:

  • Cold and flu medicines.
  • Some allergy medicines.
  • Cough and cold medicines.

Choose a medicine that treats only the problems you have. Otherwise, you could get unwanted side effects from medicine you don't need.

Is it a medicine (drug)?

Type of product Is it medicine? Why?
Antiperspirant Yes Stops sweat glands from making sweat
Deodorant No Just covers up odor of sweat
Mouthwash for plaque and gum disease Yes Contains active ingredients that reduce plaque and gum disease
Regular mouthwash No Just makes breath smell better
Dandruff shampoo Yes Treats dandruff and itching
Regular shampoo No Just cleans hair
Fluoride toothpaste Yes Reduces cavities
Toothpaste without fluoride No Just cleans your teeth

Read the label each time before you use a medicine. Be sure it's right in 5 ways:

  1. The right medicine.
  2. For the right person.
  3. In the right amount.
  4. At the right time.
  5. In the right way (swallow, chew, apply to skin).

Are dietary supplements over-the-counter medicines?

Like over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements can be bought off the shelf without a doctor's order (prescription). They can come as tablets, capsules, softgels, liquids, or powders, so they may also look a lot like medicine you take by mouth.

But dietary supplements aren't OTC medicines.

Dietary supplements are taken by mouth to add to the food you eat. Dietary supplements may contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other ingredients.

Dietary supplements have Supplement Facts labels.
Over-the-Counter medicines have Drug Facts labels.

You can read more about dietary supplements and their labels at: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ds-oview.html.

More about using medicines safely

Medicines in My Home:
Visit "Additional Resources" in the Student Room

FDA Consumer Medicine Education:

National Council on Patient Information and Education:

MedlinePlus, NIH:

MedlinePlus, Over-the-Counter Medicines:

Contact FDA: druginfo@fda.hhs.gov

Quick Info

If someone uses too much medicine, call for help right away.

Doctor's phone number:
Pharmacy phone number:

24 hour Poison Control Center 1-800-222-1222

Publication No. (FDA) 07-1906