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Having a severe headache and hobbling to the medicine cabinet only to discover you're out of pain relievers is the worst. While some medicine cabinet must-haves are obvious because they're so often needed -- like pain relievers for that headache -- other over-the-counter products can seriously come in handy when mini-emergencies, like a bad bee sting or bacon grease burn, occur.
As recommended by doctors with various backgrounds and specialties, here are all of the OTC medications you should always have on hand.
What you need: NSAIDs, diclofenac gel and lidocaine patches
Dr. Boleslav Kosharskyy, a New York-based pain management specialist, encourages everyone to keep multiple forms of pain relief in their medicine cabinets. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the obvious must-haves -- this category of medications includes ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Excedrin, which also contains acetaminophen) and naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is often grouped into that category as well, but it's not actually an NSAID.
Kosharskyy also recommends keeping diclofenac gel (1%) and lidocaine patches (4%) on-hand for topical pain relief when the pain site is intense. Diclofenac gel is a topical NSAID often used for arthritis pain, but can also be used for strains, sprains and other localized pain. This product was prescription-only until recently, but you'll soon be able to buy it at drugstores under the brand name Voltaren.
Lidocaine is a numbing agent that works by blocking nerve signals that cause pain. You can find OTC lidocaine patches up to 4% in most drugstores, usually under multiple brand names -- IcyHot is one well-known brand. Use these for localized pain, such as lower back pain or sore muscles, Kosharkyy says.
Histamine is a compound your body releases when your immune system attacks an allergen, which causes an allergic reaction. Antihistamines work by preventing or reducing the release of histamine. This class of OTC medications is found in nearly all brand-name allergy medications, including Benadryl, Robitussin, Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec and Xyzal.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, family physician and associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Rowan University recommends Xyzal for severe ongoing and seasonal allergies. You should take it at night because it can cause drowsiness, but the 24-hour relief should last you until the next evening, she says.
"Xyzal provides continuous relief from allergies caused by tree pollen, weed pollen, grass pollen, dust, dust mites, mold and pet dander," Caudle says, "and since it is taken at night, Xyzal helps prevent allergy suffering from the moment you wake up when pollen is at its worst."
What you need: Antacids, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol)
Dr. Ramzi Yacoub, PharmD, SingleCare's chief pharmacy officer tells CNET that everyone should have antacids on hand for quick relief from heartburn, which is caused by acid reflux. "Symptoms for heartburn generally consist of a burning sensation in your stomach or chest, usually right after you eat something that doesn't agree with you," Yacoub says. "Antacids work fast and provide short term relief in neutralizing stomach acids."
Note that in April 2020 the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about Zantac, a popular brand-name antacid, and requested removal of the product from both OTC and prescription markets. The FDA is investigating a contaminant known as N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) found in some ranitidine medications.
For nausea, most doctors will recommend bismuth subsalicylate, which is the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol. You can also find generic brands of this, and for whatever reason, most come in that same bubblegum pink color. It works by reducing inflammation in the intestines and decreasing the flow of fluids into your stomach.
What you need: Micellar water, ointment sprays, powdered sunscreen
Dr. Tyler Hollmig, director of dermatologic surgery at University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School, tells CNET that these three OTC products are essential for long-term skin health.
Micellar water is a must because it's one of the gentlest, yet most powerful, facial cleansers available. Made of micelles, a type of molecule arrangement that traps impurities like traces of makeup, dirt and oil. You can pick this up at any drugstore -- most will have popular brands like Neutrogena and Garnier, but also generic store brands.
Hollmig also loves ointment sprays, like Aquaphor's Ointment Body Spray, a mist form of what usually comes in tubes and tubs. "These are really helpful because patients don't have to spread a greasy product onto their skin," Hollmig says. "They just spray it like a spray sunscreen. It's a wonderful way to moisturize, best used within 2 minutes after showering to seal in a layer of moisture."
Lastly, Hollmig recommends powdered sunscreens as preventative skin care because you can apply them mid-day, as many times as you need to, without feeling greasy or having to reapply makeup. Supergoop Invisible Setting Powder is rated SPF 45, keeping your skin matte and protected. Any kind of sunscreen is important to protect you against skin cancer, so if you're not already using sunscreen for your face or body every day, you should start now.
Cold and flu
What you need: Cold and flu
aid, cough syrup
Caudle recommends Mucinex Nightshift to get some sleep when your sniffles really just won't stop. Lack of sleep can make colds and other viruses worse or persist longer, and anyone who's ever had a cold knows how congestion headaches can keep you up all night.
Mucinex Nightshift contains three key active ingredients: Acetaminophen relieves pain and reduces fever; dextromethorphan suppresses coughs; and triprolidine, an anti-histamine, provides relief for runny nose, itchy throat and other histamine-related symptoms.
For a natural cough syrup alternative for children or adults, try Maty's Mucus Cough Syrup. This is actually a drug-free OTC product made entirely of organic plant-based ingredients, including honey and ginger -- think of this as a soothing product more than a medication.
What you need: Midol Complete, mood-soothing products
Say "PMS" in a room full of people with female reproductive parts and you'll be answered with groans, sighs and eye-rolls. It really sucks, to put it poignantly. As if the cyclic bleeding wasn't bad enough, symptoms like bloating, cramping, fatigue and moodiness weasel their way in each month, too.
To beat premenstrual syndromes, or any that accompany your period, Dr. Gené van den Ende, vice president of North America medical affairs at Bayer Consumer Health, recommends Midol Complete. Its blend of acetaminophen, caffeine and pyrilamine maleate (an antihistamine) work together to combat cramps, muscle aches, fatigue, bloating and water weight gain.
What you need: Antibiotic ointment and hydrogen peroxide
"You always need to be prepared to treat cuts, scrapes, and burns," Yacoub says. "It's important to clean [a wound] right away and apply a triple antibiotic ointment or cream to help prevent and treat any bacterial infections."
Watch this: Nurses: We need more protective equipment
After cleaning a cut, scrape or burn with hydrogen peroxide, apply an antibiotic ointment on it as soon as you can, covering it with a bandaid to help the healing process, Yacoub says.
Editor's note, 4/20/2020: This article was updated to reflect that triprolidine is an antihistamine that treats runny nose, itchy throat and other histamine-related symptoms, rather than a medication that loosens mucus as originally reported.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.