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Medicine 101


The need to take both prescription and over-the-counter medications requires the consumer to understand basic medicine terms and the risks and benefits of commonly used medicines.


Lesson Objectives

  • Compare and contrast over-the-counter medicine with prescription medicine.
  • Describe the risks and benefits of over-the-counter medicine.
  • Explain the appropriate use of over-the-counter pain relievers.



Medicine 101 Pre-quiz

Pain Relief 101

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the best way to take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers is “seriously.” That is because even though their use is widespread, it is possible to overdose on OTC medications and the consequences can be critical. The active ingredients in pain relievers can damage your liver, cause stomach bleeding, kidney disease, and even cause death.

OTC pain medications are among the most common medicines teenager use. These OTC analgesics (pain relievers) are non-narcotic, but still contain powerful medicine. They come in a dizzying array of packages, and numerous variations in uses, doses, and active ingredients. Deciding which medication is best to use is easier when you know the basics about over-the-counter pain relievers.

Two basic types of over-the-counter pain relievers:

  • Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in many OTC and prescription medicines. As an analgesic and an antipyretic it helps reduce pain and fever, but does not reduce inflammation. It can be taken alone or in combination with many other active ingredients. Sleep aids and medicines that treat colds, menstrual cramps, sore muscles, flu, and allergies commonly contain acetaminophen. You can find it in pills, capsules, and syrups. When acetaminophen is present in a prescription medication, you might see the abbreviation “APAP” on the container. Scientists do not understand exactly how acetaminophen works, only that it treats pain by increasing your pain threshold.

Some experts believe acetaminophen is the safest pain reliever because it does not cause any gastrointestinal bleeding, but high doses can damage the liver, so it is important never to take more than the recommended dose in any 24-hour period.

  • NSAIDs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, prevent the body from producing prostaglandins (pros-tuhglan-dins). Prostaglandins perform numerous positive and necessary functions in the body, such as controlling cell growth and producing the sensation of fever to alert you of illness. NSAIDs block the so-called “bad” prostaglandins, so that those that cause you to feel pain and inflammation become dulled. However, NSAIDs also block the “good” prostaglandins, such as the ones that regulate your blood pressure and protect the lining of your stomach. Medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium are all examples of NSAIDs.
  • Just like acetaminophen, it is important to use NSAIDs with caution and not take more than the recommended dose.

Combination Medicine Confusion

Over-the-counter analgesics paired with other drugs to treat common illnesses are called combination medicines. It is important not to take more than one medicine at a time that contains a pain reliever, unless prescribed by a doctor. Remember that more is not better, and it can be risky. Likewise, getting medication from friends for cold symptoms or a headache is an unsafe practice unless you are able to check the label for ingredients and dosage.

Pain Relievers and the Athlete

Athletes with sore muscles or injuries should be especially careful about taking NSAIDs. While they may control the pain, they also can mask the symptoms of more serious injuries. If pain persists follow the advice on the Drug Facts Label and see your doctor. Remember, when you continue to exercise an injured body part, you only make the injury worse in the long run.

The ability to self-diagnose and treat pain is helpful for common illnesses or injuries, but being cautious and serious about the drugs you take is essential. Follow the FDA’s advice and take over-the-counter pain relievers “seriously.”

Medicine 101 Game


What is a health care professional?

Health care professionals are qualified persons who provide health care. You know that doctors and nurses are health care professionals, but the list also include dentists, dieticians, and optometrists, to name a few, that might discuss over-the-counter medicines with their patients.


Are over-the-counter medicines real drugs?

Yes, and not following dosage instructions can potentially cause serious health problems.


Can you really overdose with over-the-counter medications?

Yes and it is easy to do. Many over-the-counter medications contain the same active ingredient. When you take more than one medication you may be getting more than the recommended dose of the active ingredient and not even know it.


What should I do if suspect someone has taken an overdose of acetaminophen?

Call 911 or poison control immediately and ask for help. The symptoms of liver damage do not appear immediately and serious damage can happen before you notice a problem.


Over-the-counter drugs can impair our body’s functioning. Common impairments include:

Blurred vision; excitability; altered depth perception; nausea; seeing or hearing things; dizziness; sleepiness; slowed reaction time; and an inability to concentrate


What was the “poison squad?”

Harvey Wiley, chief chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry (later to become the Food and Drug Administration) recruited a group of men in 1902 to consume potentially harmful substances in their food as part of a scientific study. The results of this five-year study helped establish the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, sometimes called the “Wiley Act.”


Can someone really die from taking too much cough medicine?

Yes, high doses of DXM (Dextromethorphan), the cough suppressant found in over-the-counter cough medication, can suppress the central nervous system and result in death.

Medicine 101 Post-Quiz