Caller: Will NyQuil®/Lotrimin®/Unisom®/(insert other brand name of over-the-counter product) help me with (insert symptom)?
Dr. Goldman: Well, can you tell me which specific product you are using?
Caller: What? I already told you…
Dr. Goldman: There are actually different products under that brand name with different active ingredients. In order for me to give you good information I need to know what active ingredients are in the product you are using.
Caller: I don’t actually have it...
At this point I would usually try to explain how to look on the back of the product and which active ingredients they should look for to help with their given symptom. Even though I technically answered their questions, these calls were very unsatisfying. What’s the big deal? Let me give you a simple example—regular Unisom® actually comes in two different forms (tablets and capsules) and those forms have two different active ingredients. The ingredient in the tablets (diphenhydramine) is much better at helping people sleep while the capsule ingredient (doxylamine) can be combined with vitamin B6 to help with nausea and vomiting in pregnant women. See how it might help to know which one the caller is about to use?
Add to this the fact that many over-the-counter products are combination products—especially those cough and cold products like NyQuil®—and those combinations can vary significantly depending on whether you pick up the “day” or “night” or “pain” or “just for the heck of it” package. Now imagine the person whose advice you’re looking for has spent years learning all the awful things that can happen if the wrong person takes the wrong medication and hearing horror stories about pharmacists getting sued and being drilled on how to gather ALL the details before making any treatment recommendations. Poof. (That was my head exploding).
The solution? I propose we all fight back against the marketing hullabaloo. Start checking the package and using those awful long names when talking about drugs. I promise no one will laugh if you pronounce them wrong. (I would even bet you will be surprised by how often the same ingredients are repeated. Over-the-counter world is kind of boring.) Referring to the actual active ingredients makes everyone a little safer and calmer. And my head won’t explode. Happiness all around.