Over-the-counter medicines are perfectly safe – when used as directed. But there's evidence that more people need to learn to take those directions seriously.
Share the risks of painkilling miracle
A modern pharmacy is a cornucopia of cures for ailments of many types. The medications that can be most dangerous if misused are in the back, to be dispensed only by a trained and licensed pharmacist. In the front of the shop, meanwhile, are pills, potions, unguents and treatments for problems ranging from dandruff to athlete's foot.
But this time-honoured arrangement can hide unsuspected dangers. Just because a product is sold "over-the-counter" - which usually means, confusingly, just the opposite, that you pick it up off the shelf yourself - is no guarantee that it is safe to use under all circumstances.
Too few people, health authorities say, understand that the warnings on non-prescription products must be taken seriously. This week officials drew public attention to surveys suggesting that one product may be responsible for half of all cases of medical problems linked to over-the-counter drugs. That product is the familiar old paracetamol.
Sold under a variety of brand names, and known as acetaminophen by some, this medication is - when properly used - truly a gift to humankind, reducing headache and taming fever. No wonder it can be found in most home medicine cabinets and many purses, briefcases and desk drawers. But don't take too much of it.
The packaging of one prominent brand, as purchased in Abu Dhabi yesterday, spelt out the maximum daily dosage - eight pills of 500mg each, carefully spaced into four doses over 24 hours - but did not give the reason for the limit, which is the potential for liver damage at higher levels. A package insert did mention that, but the box was printed in English only, and the small-print insert inside was in just Arabic and English.
Some pharmacists do store this product where customers must ask for it, but the potential for people to walk out unknowingly with enough medicine to do themselves serious damage is still too high. Nor is that product the only one in a pharmacy that can be risky if misused.
There is a simple, useful partial solution to this problem: pharmacists cannot be expected to speak every customer's language but warning sheets, printed in large type, in simple words and a range of languages, could warn everyone about the dangers of misusing medicine.