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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

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.
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