Prescription-free relief

Stashed behind the counter at your local pharmacy are a slew of products that can make you feel better, faster. Here's what you need to ask for.

You have a gut-wrenching feeling that you need to visit the doctor – pronto. But before her receptionist puts your call on hold for 20 minutes, consider making a quick trip to the drugstore. Turns out pharmacists have a range of useful meds stored behind the dispensary counter that you can purchase – after counselling – without a prescription. Many drugstores also keep pricier products, such as Nicorette and Abreva (a new cold-sore cream containing docosanol, which speeds healing but costs $20), in the dispensary to avoid theft. And cold medications containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine – such as Sudafed Decongestant – are now kept behind the counter to curb misuse.

While these products aren’t covered by most health plans, you can’t put a price on the convenience. One caveat: the vast majority are intended for short-term use only. “If you’re regularly relying on a behind-the-counter drug, you need to see your doctor,” says Dr. David Juurlink, a drug safety specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

Woe: Mild earache or pink eye
Remedy: Polysporin antibiotic eye/ear drops, $11*
A small amount of antibiotic makes these drops suitable for minor infections; they won’t help red eyes due to allergies or water-logged ears. And you shouldn’t use them for more than a few days.

“Regular use could result in developing a resistance to the antibiotic,” explains Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician in Toronto, who adds that red eyes could be a sign of a serious problem such as glaucoma or inflammation of the iris. “Either of these needs immediate medical attention.”

Woe: Freckles, age spots and other areas with uneven skin tone
Remedy: NeoStrata hq Plus gel, $34*
Hydroquinone gel fades discoloured skin, but be sure to use it in combination with sunblock – sun exposure minimizes its effectiveness. Toronto dermatologist Paul Cohen recommends testing the gel on an inconspicuous patch of skin to determine whether you’ll have a reaction: hydroquinone can cause redness and stinging. Consider taking a pass if you have overly sensitive skin, and visit your doctor pronto if you’re concerned about any suspicious-looking freckles.

Woe: The condom broke
Remedy: Plan B emergency contraception, $35*
The morning-after pill contains a slightly higher dose of the same hormone found in oral contraceptives and can prevent pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex. “The earlier you take it, the more effective it is,” says Vancouver pharmacist Colleen Brady. She recommends keeping a package on hand in case of emergency. Plan B may cause nausea, spotting or abnormalities in your menstrual cycle; consult your doctor before taking it if you’re prone to blood clots.

Woe: Pain that won’t quit
Remedy: Tylenol No. 1 acetaminophen with codeine and caffeine, $9*
Tylenol No. 1 contains the painkiller codeine, which Brady recommends if run-of-the-mill Tylenol isn’t doing the trick for you. But turn to it only on occasion, she warns. Long-term use can diminish its effects and result in constipation and liver damage; regularly taking it alongside cold meds containing acetaminophen is also ill-advised. Codeine causes drowsiness, adds Dr. Juurlink, so avoid alcohol and don’t drive while taking this drug.

Woe: Major motion sickness
Remedy: Transderm-V scopolamine patch, $15*
This dime-size patch worn behind the ear provides motion-sickness relief for up to three days. “It’s ideal for someone who is going on a cruise and has experienced motion sickness in the past,” says Dr. Juurlink. The downside? Transderm-V can cause drowsiness, dry mouth and blurred vision. However, these side effects may be preferable to round-the-clock vomiting. Brady suggests doing a test run before your trip and avoiding too much booze while away.

Woe: Chronically dry skin
Remedy: Uremol 20 urea cream, $22*
Urea draws moisture into the skin and is best applied just after a shower. Dr. Cohen calls urea an excellent all-over body moisturizer and says it’s especially effective at treating “winter itch,” a flaky skin condition caused by dry air. However, visit your doctor if your skin is red and inflamed. She can prescribe a cortisone cream to reduce redness before you apply urea – otherwise, it could sting.