A Glossary of Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves

The over-the-counter medicines and supplies to have at the ready for minor emergencies.

  • Denise Grady and Claudia Bloom
People go to medicine cabinets to find relief. Medicines, on the other hand, go to medicine cabinets to die a slow and undignified death. There's the penicillin from 1997, the eyedrops with the label worn off, the reddish goop that may have once been cough syrup. And amid all these sputtering bottles and vials, you can't find one measly Band-Aid.

Is it time to give your medical supplies a checkup? Apart from your prescriptions, all you want are the tools to treat minor cuts and burns, headaches, fevers, coughs, itching, allergies, or a runny nose. (The key word here is minor. For severe symptoms, bypass the cabinet and go directly to your doctor.) Here’s what you really need to keep your cabinet as healthy as you prefer to be.

For Pain, Headaches, Fever

No need to buy both the regular- and extra-strength versions of these products. Anyone who needs a bigger dose can take an extra pill (and you’ll save space).

Aspirin: Still a favorite painkiller and fever reducer, though some find it too irritating to the stomach. Also, it can interfere with blood clotting, so people who take blood thinners or are about to have surgery must not take it. Children and teenagers should avoid aspirin as well, because it has been linked in young people to Reye's syndrome, a rare condition involving swelling of the brain and liver.

Acetaminophen: May be a better choice for anyone who wants or needs to avoid aspirin. Pediatric doses are also available. Adults taking acetaminophen pills (Tylenol is one brand) must avoid other products that also contain the drug, such as many combination cough-and-cold remedies, as overdoses can harm the liver.

Ibuprofen or naproxen sodium: Ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve and Naprosyn) are effective painkillers for adults and children 12 and over. (Motrin also has a children's formula.) Like aspirin, they may irritate the stomach.

Warning: All these painkillers can cause problems if mixed with too much alcohol. People who have three or more drinks a day should consult a doctor about using them.
 

For Congestion From Colds

Decongestants: Two popular kinds are pseudoephedrine (in Sudafed and Sinarest) or phenylephrine (in Dristan Cold Multi-Symptom and Rynatan). Note: Federal law requires that products containing pseudoephedrine be located behind the counter; you'll have to show identification to buy them, and sign a logbook.

Warning: Many cold remedies contain antihistamines, which cause drowsiness and are best reserved for allergies.

For Coughs

Cough medicine: For a dry, hacking cough, look for one that contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. Big-name brands include Robitussin Maximum Strength Cough and Pertussin. If the cough is producing mucus, use something with guaifenesin, an expectorant, to loosen secretions. These include Robitussin PE and Benylin Expectorant Formula.

Warning: A cough that lasts more than a week or is accompanied by a fever may be a sign of bronchitis or pneumonia and should be treated by a doctor.

For Allergies

Antihistamines: Diphenhydramine (in Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (in Chlor-Trimeton), and clemastine (in Tavist Allergy 12 Hour Relief) all work to relieve sneezing and a runny nose, but each causes sleepiness. Loratadine (in Claritin) is nonsedating.

Eyedrops: Drops that contain an antihistamine and a decongestant, like Naphcon A and Opcon-A, can soothe itchy eyes.

For Digestive Problems

Calcium carbonate tablets: Tums and Rolaids both relieve heartburn, which occurs when stomach acid backs up and irritates the esophagus. They temporarily neutralize the acid and also provide calcium, which is deficient in many people's diets.

Maalox or Mylanta: Both products give longer-lasting relief.

Tagamet, Prilosec, Pepcid, or Prevacid: Not crucial, but you might want to keep one of these products, which decrease acid secretion, on hand. But anyone suffering from chronic heartburn should see a doctor to find out what is causing it, whether dietary changes can help, and which type of drug is best.

Warning: Be wary of treatments for constipation and diarrhea. Although drugstore shelves are lined with remedies for constipation, doctors discourage their use more than once in a great while because the body can become dependent on them. (Fiber-based products like Metamucil are least likely to be habit-forming.) Chronic constipation may be caused by a diet deficient in fiber or a more serious health problem. Occasional attacks of diarrhea can be relieved by Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, or Imodium. But letting the illness run its course may get rid of the offending germs faster. Parents should keep Pedialyte on hand to prevent dehydration in small children suffering from diarrhea or vomiting.
 

For Itchy Rashes, Bug Bites, and Other Skin Problems

Calamine lotion: This old-fashioned pink liquid soothes itching from rashes and bites and dries up weepy rashes like the kind you get from poison ivy.

Antihistamine cream: Use one (like Benadryl Itch Stopping Cream) to relieve intense itching. Or try one that combines calamine and an antihistamine, like Ivarest.

Cortisone: A 1-percent cream or ointment may relieve a persistent itch that's not cured by the medications above.

You May Also Want:
Benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid: Acne sufferers can benefit from masks, washes, and spot treatments with these ingredients.
Antifungal cream: More effective in curing athlete's foot than powders and sprays. Top brands include Lamisil, Micatin, and Lotrimin, all of which can also be used to treat jock itch.
Yeast-infection medicine: Monistat, Gyne-Lotrimin, and other antifungals work well. But they will not fight vaginal infections that sometimes mimic yeast infections. If your drug does not work within a few days, see a doctor.
Bladder-infection medicine: Phenazopyridine (Uristat and Prodium) can relieve the burning and the urge to urinate. But it does not treat the infection, which may require antibiotics.

For Cuts and Burns

Bandages and gauze pads: A box of adhesive strips in assorted sizes and a box of gauze pads (the large size, four by four inches, which can be cut down) will be adequate to dress most cuts, scrapes, and burns.

Medical tape: This will hold gauze in place. People with sensitive skin need paper tape marked "hypoallergenic." If the gauze is applied to fingers, an arm, or a leg, it can be wrapped instead of taped with the kind of nonglue cloth wrap that sticks only to itself. Johnson & Johnson sells a product called Hurt Free Tape in two widths.

You May Also Want:
Hydrogen peroxide: When used to clean wounds, it stings less than alcohol.
Antibiotic ointment: It can protect and moisten a closed wound or a minor burn. Antibiotic Band-Aids are also an option.
Liquid bandage: Paint on one (like New-Skin) to seal off a small, uninfected cut, taking the place of a more cumbersome bandage.
Butterfly bandages: By pulling together the edges of a cut, these bandages help it heal with minimal scarring. They're worth considering if you have extra space in your medicine chest.
 

Tools

Thermometer: The electronic kind is usually accurate and sturdy, and a good choice for those who are wary of the mercury in traditional thermometers. For babies, rectal thermometers are most accurate.

You May Also Want:
Magnifying glass and tweezers: To remove splinters.
Pill cutter: Comes in handy if you need to cut a dose in half. (But always ask your doctor or pharmacist first whether cutting the pill will change the rate at which it dissolves, and whether that matters.)
Eyeglass repair kit

For Tooth Care

Toothpaste, Floss, and a New Spare Toothbrush

You May Also Want:
Rub-on painkiller: Anbesol, Orajel, and Zilactin work on toothaches, gum pain, teething pain, canker sores, and cold sores.
Dental-repair kit: Such kits as Temparin and Dentemp contain dental cement for temporarily replacing a lost filling or crown―good if you have had a lot of dental work done.