Top 10 Over-The-Counter Medicines You Must Have at Home


So as a GP, I see any and all medical ailments, but many of these can be managed at home without needing to consult a doctor. This does seem to be something of a lost art, and so I've created a list of the top 10 over-the-counter medicines you really should have in your bathroom cabinet. These are all readily available and very affordable, and come in handy when minor illness strikes.

Pharmacists are also highly trained in providing advice, so if unsure about a medication or what might be suitable, do always ask.

If you're taking prescription medicines as well, it's always best to ask the pharmacist for advice before using any of these, as there may be drug interactions, and if need be they can signpost you to your doctor if you require more information or need something prescribed that's more suitable.

Please note this list is for simple self-limiting illnesses- should symptoms get worse or these medications not help, seek the advice of your pharmacist or GP.

Also, this list is based upon what's available in the UK, so I've used UK medicine names and what is licensed here. This may not be transferable to other countries. Further, I do not support any particular brand of these medications over the generic form, the images are just for illustrative purposes.

1. Paracetamol


An extremely useful medicine, in that it both works as a pain-killer and an anti-pyretic (it brings fevers down). It's also one of the safest, having a extremely good side effect profile compared to most medicines and minimal to no interactions with other medications, and is suitable for use in children. The problem of course only comes in overdose, but so long as you stick to the maximum dose (dependent on your age, always check the box instructions), it's invaluable. It's also extremely cheap and readily available and is a must for those aches and pains and raging fevers.

TAKE CARE: Be aware if you are using combination medicines (for example in the UK you can buy over the counter co-codamol, which is codeine and paracetamol together), as you can accidentally overdose if you don't realise the medicine already contains paracetamol.

2. Ibuprofen (Tablets/ Gel)



Another very useful pain-killer, often more effective due to it being anti-inflammatory in nature. It can also bring down fevers and treat most pain. However, unlike paracetamol it does have some significant side effects, such as stomach upset, and taking too much too regularly can cause stomach ulcers and kidney problems.

Topical or cream/ gel ibuprofen bypasses this problem and can be as effective, so for those who can't tolerate the tablet form, are taking a medicine it interacts with or have a history of stomach problems or kidney disease, this is a good alternative. The gel works best when used in conjunction with heat, so applying heat to the sore spot and then rubbing it in is more effective than just rubbing the gel in.

TAKE CARE: As mentioned, if you have any history of stomach ulcers, kidney problems or bleeding disorders, or take any blood thinning medication or certain high blood pressure medications, tablet ibuprofen should be avoided. Consult your pharmacist or GP if unsure.

3. Piriton (chlorphenamine), Cetirizine or any other antihistamine
Not just for the hayfever season, antihistamines are very good for any allergic type reactions or rashes. From insect bites, to nettle stings and more, these are definitely worth keeping around. They also work well for itching, so are good for eczema and other skin conditions that cause this. This is particularly helpful for children, as piriton is a sedating antihistamine and can help with sleeping at night if itching is keeping them awake.

They're also very good for the aforementioned hayfever and can treat the associated itchy/ runny eyes as well, and chronic sinus problems.

Itching is a classic allergic-type sign, so this will also help for itchy rashes.

TAKE CARE: If you ever suffer any anaphylaxis symptoms (difficulty breathing/ choking, feeling faint/ dizzy/ unwell) then seek urgent medical attention, as antihistamines don't work fast enough to treat this. Antihistamines are also not suitable for use in pregnancy unless under close medical supervision.

4. Antiseptic creams
Various brands are available on the market, with Germolene/ Savlon being amongst the most popular in the UK, but they perform the same job. These are excellent for cuts/ grazes and inflamed spots, and can help keep wounds from becoming infected or more painful.

Usually it's best to apply the cream, then put some gauze/ plaster over the area while it heals.

TAKE CARE: If wounds don't heal after 7 days of this, or become more painful/ red/ oozing, it may need stronger prescription antibiotic cream to help, so do keep an eye on things.

5. Decongestants (tablets or nasal spray)


As well as paracetamol and ibuprofen, decongestants are another tool in the set for helping with blocked nose/ viral sinusitis/ colds. These can be very useful to relieve sinus headaches, blocked noses and can provide great relief while your body fights off the causative virus.

TAKE CARE: You should NEVER use these medicines for more than 7-10 days, because then you will get a condition called rhinitis medicomentosa, which is where your nasal passages grow dependent on the decongestant and you will get a rebound flare of swelling in the nose when trying to stop the decongestant, paradoxically causing you to use more of it! If you are still requiring something to stop a blocked nose after 10 days, consult your GP or pharmacist to switch to a steroid nasal spray which is safer to use long term. 

6. Immodium/ loperamide
This is an anti-diarrhoea medicine, very helpful if you have the runs and still need to function day to day. Most stomach bugs are viral in nature and so immodium is a useful support medicine to tide through the worst of these illnesses, which should usually last for a maximum of 10-14 days. It can also be used on an 'as needed' basis for those who suffer with irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhoea predominant, but this needs to be diagnosed by a medical practitioner first so please don't self treat before getting the appropriate investigations confirming the diagnosis.

TAKE CARE: Some bacterial stomach infections can last longer and taking immodium can make symptoms worse, so certainly if you take this and feel worse, or your symptoms don't get better in the expected time-frame, see your GP.

7. Senna/ Fybogel



Flipping to the other side of the bowel spectrum, constipation is a very common complaint. While good fibre intake and good fluid intake are perhaps more important, there are some good over the counter medicines that can help loosen things up. These can be particularly useful if you are already taking a medication that causes constipation, such a codeine.

Various preparations are available, from senna tablets to fybogel sachets, so you can take what suits you best.

TAKE CARE: If you have symptoms of bowel obstruction (vomiting and unable to pass wind or open your bowels at all and a very swollen belly) you must NOT take senna, and should seek urgent medical attention.

8. Gaviscon/ Rennies/ Nexium/ Milk of magnesia
Sticking with the gastroenterology theme, these medicines are antacids that are very effective for treating indigestion and heartburn. Gaviscon is also good for chronic laryngeal irritation caused by acid that can often cause a dry cough. Gaviscon is also safe to use in pregnancy which is a plus as heartburn is a very common complaint at this time, as the pregnancy hormones cause all the smooth muscles to relax (hence why acid doesn't stay in the stomach and can reflux into the oesophagus [food pipe]).

It can also be useful to take these medicines with ibuprofen (so long as you don't have any other medical reason not to take ibuprofen) as this will help protect the stomach. 

TAKE CARE: If your symptoms don't settle with these medicines then it may not be acid reflux causing things- seek advice from your GP if the medicines don't seem to be working or you notice other worrying symptoms such as swallowing problems, weight loss, or if you've suddenly developed reflux-like symptoms over the age of 40 when you never had them before.

9. Anti-fungal creams/ steroid creams/ moisturising creams




Many creams that were once only on prescription are now available behind the counter at most pharmacies. Amongst them are anti-fungal creams such as clotrimazole, useful for thrush, athlete's foot and ringworm, and mild steroid creams such as hydrocortisone which are useful for flares of eczema or other inflammatory skin conditions. And even the humble moisturizer, from E45 to Aveeno, is also very useful to control dry skin.

Most pharmacists are trained to recognised common skin conditions so do consult their advice so they can guide you to the most appropriate treatment.

TAKE CARE: It is very important to get the right diagnosis of the skin problem first, as for example skin infections will get WORSE if you put steroid cream on them! Pharmacists are trained to help with this, and if there's any uncertainty they will direct you to your GP. Also, in this day and age of Dr. Google, it can be tempting to try and find a matching image of your rash online, but many rashes can look the same, and the diagnosis and treatment wildly differ depending on context, so please see your GP to get an accurate diagnosis, else you very well may make the condition worse.

10. Tubigrip/ joint supports


While not technically a medicine, these are arguably just as effective and necessary for minor sprains and joint aches. We all lead active lives and any number of strains can happen, whether we're out walking the dog, playing football with friends, or even going to the summer sales. Support bandages are very good for immediate treatment, as they form the 'C' part of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) which is the treatment regime for any sprain.

Nowadays you can get joint specific supports from all chemists, supermarkets and even pound shops, but tubigrip is more universal as you can simply cut this to size (and have the correct widths for wrist, ankle, knee etc) and use it for any joint.

The best way for tubigrip to be supportive is to make sure it covers almost to the joint above (so for wrist, it should cover from the knuckles of the hand to almost the elbow, and for ankle it should cover from below the toes to almost below the knee), and it can be reused in future if need be.

TAKE CARE: Using supports for too long can make joints get very stiff, so only use them for a couple of weeks following an injury and keep active while wearing it. Pains persisting longer than this, or if things get more painful instead of improving, will need a GP to assess further.



And so there you have it- ten essential medicines you should keep at home for the inevitable minor mishaps that happen as part of life, along with their potential pitfalls and cautions. I hope you've found this post informative, and if you'd like more medical posts from me, let me know!

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