Why, how and when to self-medicate


When you walk into a chemist, pharmacy or even a supermarket to find something for a runny nose, an itchy throat or a little one’s grazed knee, that’s self-medication: the treatment of common health problems or the management of chronic health conditions, using medicines designed and labelled for use without medical supervision.

The Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA) give us the lowdown on self-medication.

Why would you self-medicate?

Well, maybe you don’t have time to take your cold to the doctor. Or your itchy throat crops up every now and then, and you know how to tackle it yourself. Or your son grazes his knee at school once a week, and you can’t afford to go to a doctor each time.

Because they’ve been approved as safe and effective for you to buy and use without a prescription, non-prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines help to reduce unnecessary medical fees, while giving you greater autonomy over your health and the health of your family.

Who’s self-medicating?

In SA developing regions account for 84% of OTC medication growth. In the Middle East and Africa, the 3-year average growth of this market is a whopping 9.9% (Tisman, 2015).

Why the trend? One explanation is the information explosion, enabled by technological advances that improve access to health-related information. Consumers simply have more tools to take an active role in their healthcare.

Why self-medicate?

The most compelling reason is speedier relief of the symptoms, while taking greater ownership of your own body. Nearly seven in 10 American parents have given their child an OTC medicine late at night, to treat a sudden medical symptom (CHPA, 2015). Another is lifestyle-related: by taking pro-active care of your overall health using self-medication – in the form of multivitamins in winter, for instance – you boost your immunity.

When & how to self-medicate?

How can you tell when to book a doctor’s appointment and when to handle things yourself? Then, what are the guidelines for safe self-medication?

Step 1: Assess

  • Am I unsure about which medicine I need to effectively treat the ailment?
  • Am I, or a loved one, experiencing chest discomfort; numbness in arms, legs, or face; frequent urination; fatigue; or sharp abdominal pain?
  • After taking medication, am I or is someone close to me experiencing unpleasant side effects or feeling worse?
  • Have I, or someone close to me, become reliant on the medication that is being taken to treat the ailment?

If none of these is the case, it’s probably safe to self-medicate.

Step 2: Prepare

When you visit a pharmacy, take a list that includes:

  • any allergies,
  • a symptom history (onset, severity, location, etc.),
  • medical and family history,
  • current medication (all of it),
  • lifestyle factors (use of caffeine, tobacco, etc.), and
  • any concerns and questions, like:

Step 3: Read up

Read the medical ingredients, strength, uses, warnings and directionson the product label and in the manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. Some medicines should not be used together with others, while some may not be suitable for people with certain medical conditions.

Step 4: Safeguard

  • When storing medicines at home, keep them out of children’s reach and sight. Choose a cool, dry storage environment (or an airtight container in your bathroom), so heat and moisture can’t affect your medicine.
  • Don’t remove medicines from their original packaging, because you could confuse them or miss out on the expiry date.
  • Never use medicine that has expired, or that has changed its appearance or smell in any way.
  • Don’t dispose of medicines down the sink or toilet, because this can contaminate the water supply. Rather return unused or expired medicine to your pharmacist, for safe and legal disposal.
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