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Summer Health Survival Guide

A Glossary of Medicine Cabinet Must-Haves

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

By Denise Grady and Claudia Bloom
Illustration of a medicine cabinetSarah Wilkins
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.
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