Why self-medication is harmful

Taking a dose of your own medicine is not always a good idea. It can leave you with a bad stomach at the best and in an emergency ward at the worst

Woman with medicine and tharma meter

Got a headache? Will pop an analgesic. Fever too? An antipyretic will do. Throat ache? Oh, I need an antibiotic. How many times have you heard people doing this? If the answer is often, they could well be getting into a habit of self-medication—like a whole lot of other educated people who feel it is fine to pop a pill without a doctor’s instructions.

Many of you may not be aware, but these well-meaning drugs are not without side-effects and can play havoc with your system if taken without professional advice. We have for you the most commonly abused over-the-counter medicines and their potential side-effects.

Pain killers

What they are

Pain killers are drugs used to relieve pain. Most of them belong to a class of drugs called Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDS], which control inflammation, fever and mild pain.”Taking them without consultation, buying them over and over again using the same prescription, taking a double dose for quicker relief or using the left-over medicines later for similar symptoms can put people in trouble,” says Dr Jeetendra Jain, a Mumbai-based pain physician.

Potential side-effects

  • Can cause ulcers and bleeding in the stomach.
  • Can cause acidity, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, dizziness, rashes, and headaches.
  • Boost blood pressure and can counteract the effect of some blood pressure medicines. May also cause cardiac failure.
  • Cause kidney problems.

An alternative

“Use a hot or cold compress, exercises, physiotherapy or rest, as advised by your doctor for relief from back or neck pain, headache or bodyache, rather than take these drugs frequently,” suggests Dr Jain.

Cough syrups

What they are

These are medicines used to treat coughs and are of two types. Those which are used for dry coughs called cough suppressants or antitussives, while those which help a cough with phlegm are expectorants. Since a lot of them are alcohol-based, people take it for getting a high.

Potential side-effects

  • A pounding heart or uneven heartbeat
  • Dryness in the mouth
  • Nausea, stomach pain, constipation
  • Dizziness, blurred vision, drowsiness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Restlessness, confusion and a reduced concentration.

An alternative

Have honey with warm water to soothe a cough or just sip plain water every few minutes, if your throat is hoarse. “See your doctor so that he can advice you on treatment of the problem that is causing the cough, rather than treating it with a cough syrup,” says Col Dwivedi, Classified Specialist, ENT, Armed Forces Clinic, New Delhi. “Cough is a defence mechanism and your body throws out the irritant or the infection through the phlegm, which comes with it, so I advise not to suppress it,” he adds.


What they are

sick woman with medicinesAntibiotics are drugs used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Usually, our immune system can fight bacteria and stop them from multiplying enough to cause an infection. But, there are times when our immunity is low and the body is unable to control an infection. That is when you need an antibiotic. “The very fact that a competent immune system can control many an infection should be reason enough for people not to consume antibiotics regularly and let their body work in a natural way,” says Dr Sunali Kashyap, a Noida-based dentist. Those who take antibiotics unsupervised are mostly unaware of the proper course of the medicine and have a tendency to stop taking it as soon as they feel better. “But if you take an inadequate dose at irregular intervals for an incomplete duration, the bacteria may become resistant to the drug and the drug would become ineffective for future use,” adds Dr Kashyap.

“Ciprofloxacin, which is commonly administered without supervision, is a low-grade anti-tubercular drug and can sometimes mask tuberculosis, if taken by a patient,” says Dr Deepak Raina, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, New Delhi.

Potential side-effects

  • Allergic reactions like swelling of lips, face, and tongue
  • Loose stools
  • Nausea, vomiting and dizziness
  • Inflammation of the large intestine [colitis] especially in the elderly
  • Vaginal infection in women caused by growth of fungus due to suppression of ‘good bacteria’.
  • Certain antibiotics can reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptive pills.

An alternative

“Let your doctor use his experience in deciding which antibiotic you need, or whether you really need one,” suggests Col Dwivedi.

Homoeopathic remedies

Homoeopathy offers treatment solutions to individuals based on their specific symptoms only. A homoeopath keeps in mind the patient’s psychology, habits, likes, dislikes, and temperament, before prescribing a certain medicine. This in itself leads to the importance of correct instruction before consumption of a medicine.

Besides, these medicines are not bereft of side-effects as commonly believed. “Though they are made from natural resources and their side-effects may not be lethal, they may cause stomach disorders, and palpitations, if taken injudiciously for long. In fact, you may also have a medicinal disease, i.e., experience signs and symptoms of the medicine itself,” says Dr Monika Nath, a Delhi-based homoeopath.

“Sometimes a certain medicine may give mild relief and a person may go on taking higher strengths of the same for longer periods in anticipation of complete treatment, not realising that it isn’t the right treatment after all. This causes side-effects, which may require medical intervention,” she adds.

Hence, be sure of the symptoms of the ailment and the scope and potency of the medicine before administering it.

Ayurvedic medicines

These are also derived from natural products and a lot of them are available over-the-counter, but should not be taken without instruction from a qualified ayurvedic doctor. “Ayurvedic medicines have to be prescribed based on the patient’s body type, age, lifestyle, dietary habits, and duration of disease. The dosage, duration, dietary restrictions and even the time of administration are important to get optimum benefit and avoid any side-effects,” says Dr Shantala Priyadarshini, MS [Ayurveda] from Mysore. “The side-effects could range from rashes to loose stools to flatulence to dependence on the medicine,” she adds. So, take care before you pick up triphala or tulsi without consultation.

Medicines are substances that have varied effects on your system, many of them being undesirable. A doctor, only after having studied so extensively, becomes capable of assessing your body and the risks and benefits involved in offering medication. So, the job of prescribing a medicine is best left to him.

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Priti Salian
Priti Salian is a teacher by profession and a writer by choice. Her interests include yoga, health, parenting and social awareness. She lives in New Delhi.


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