Over-the-counter medicines can be costly (and unnecessary)
There are two ways to save money at the drugstore:
- Know what you need and find the cheapest price.
- Know what you don’t need and avoid buying anything at all.
I’ve written a lot of posts on this topic because I think it’s one of the easiest ways to save money on health care, and certainly the one we have the most control over.
Sure it won’t save thousands of dollars a year, but it might save hundreds, depending on what you buy and how often.
Pain relief medicines
There are really only two types of oral pain relievers: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen).
I compare their uses in my previous post on OTC pain relievers, but in short it’s a good idea to have both on hand. NSAIDS are good for inflammatory-type pain, such as sprains and arthritis, and acetaminophen is good for general pains (like mild headaches) and treating a fever.
With few exceptions, topical pain relievers aren’t all that effective. They aren’t absorbed far enough into the tissue to help with deep joint or muscle pain. They aren’t all that great for sunburns, either. Oral pain meds and cool compresses work just as well and don’t cost as much.
Cough, cold and flu medicines
I think the biggest savings are to be had in this category.
Americans spend billions of dollars every year on cough, cold and flu medicines and honestly they aren’t very effective. Especially cough medicine. Save your money and stay hydrated or suck on a lozenge. Coughs typically take up to 3 weeks to go away. If a cough is really interfering with your sleep, talk to your doctor. Codeine is the most effective cough suppressant, but it’s only available by prescription.
For cold and flu medicines, know which ingredients work for what you need and then look for the best price. I list these in much more detail in my posts The most effective cold remedies and The best over-the-counter flu medicines.
Generally, however, the best treatment for colds or flu is rest, hydration, and time.
More savings can be found in the allergy med aisle.
There are several types of allergy products on the market:
- oral antihistamine medication
- antihistamine or steroid nasal sprays
- antihistamine eye drops
Oral antihistamines can help with the worst allergy symptoms, like a runny nose and incessant sneezing. They do have minor side effects: dry mouth, dry eyes and drowsiness are the most common. There are many different antihistamines, but they all work about the same. Pick one you like and look for the generic version.
Nasal sprays are nice because they treat the problem at the source—your nose. These sprays may contain plain saline, antihistamines, decongestants, or corticosteroids.
I describe each of these in my post Save money on nasal sprays. Decide which ingredient you need then find the best price.
I love my antihistamine eye drops! They’re the only product I use for my seasonal allergies. Look on the label for the antihistamine ketotifen. Avoid decongestant eye drops (“gets the red out”) because they dry out the eyes and can cause rebound redness and irritation.
I have much more information about eye drops and treating allergy eyes in my post Home remedies for allergy eyes.
Stomach upset medicines
Stomach medicines include treatments for:
- diarrhea (Pepto-Bismol, Imodium)
- gas and bloating (Gas-X, Mylanta Gas)
- heartburn or acid reflux (Tums, Rolaids, Mylanta, Prilosec, Nexium)
Pepto-Bismol or Imodium are nice to have on hand in case of diarrhea, although usually diarrhea is a short-lived problem and will clear up on its own. Stay hydrated and follow a BRAT diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast).
Pepto is also useful for nausea or mild heartburn.
There are a lot of drugs to treat heartburn or GERD on the market, and the name brands can be particularly expensive. Also, some of these are simply not safe to take long term.
If you suffer from minor acid problems, change your diet and try a simple antacid first (Mylanta or Tums). Don’t use a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) like Nexium unless you have a significant problem, and then I would recommend only using it under your doctor’s supervision.
So there you have my suggestions for saving money at the drugstore. Ignore the marketing claims, read the labels, and only buy what you know will be useful.