Choosing Over-the-Counter Meds

Go into just about any drugstore and you’ll find row after row of all kinds of medicines. It can be confusing for anyone, but perhaps even more so for people with diabetes. To help patients with this predicament, a professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Pharmacy recently delivered a report on what people with diabetes need to know about over-the-counter, or OTC, medications. As Miranda Wilhelm, PharmD, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators, told her audience, “Just because you can get it without talking to your doctor doesn’t mean it’s safer.”


One of the first concerns about OTC meds is carbohydrates (including sugar) that are present in the products but not listed on the label. “It’s a dilemma,” Wilhelm said, “because in some cases the carbs are so high it’s equivalent to a snack.” She added, however, that if a user’s glucose levels are under control it’s probably fine to take carb-containing OTC meds “for a few days.” Even so, she said, “if you’re concerned about your blood sugar levels, look for medicines labeled ‘sugar-free’ or ‘for people with diabetes’.” Sugar content is just one reason it’s important to read the label.

Wilhelm also suggested that diabetes patients might want to choose pills instead of liquids. That’s because liquid medicines typically contain more carbs. Liquids might also contain alcohol, sometimes as much as a glass of wine. She also advised considering “topical” medicines, which don’t enter the bloodstream, over ones that are swallowed. For example, a nasal spray might be preferable to congestion relief taken orally. Similarly, ice or a pain cream might be a better choice than a pain-killer in pill form. Finally, she said, get recommendations from health-care professionals — your doctor, or course, but also your pharmacist.

Want to learn more about diabetes and medicines? Read “Dangerous Drug Interactions” and “Drugs That Can Worsen Diabetes Control.”

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