You don’t need to head to the clinic for every sniffle and scrape. Instead, save money and hassles by keeping your medicine cabinet stocked with proven home treatment options. We asked for advice from Dr. Earlexia Norwood, service chief of Family Medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
“The first thing to know,” she emphasizes, “is that not all family medicine cabinets should look the same.” The contents of your medicine cabinet will depend on the ages of the people in your family, the activities they participate in and their specific health concerns. With that in mind, here are some basics everyone needs for common illnesses and injuries.
For minor burns, your first stop should be your sink, not your medicine cabinet. Soak the affected area in cool running water for 15 minutes, then reach for an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen if the injury swells up. An antibiotic ointment is useful for small blisters. Never use butter, even if it was your mom’s go-to treatment. “It increases the risk of infection,” Dr. Norwood says.
Small cuts and scrapes
“Don’t put rubbing alcohol on a cut,” says Dr. Norwood. Opt for a gentler cleaning solution like hydrogen peroxide, or simply flush the wound with plain soap and water, then coat it with antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandage strip or gauze. “But first,” Dr. Norwood says, “wash your own hands.” Cotton swabs can be helpful for applying ointment to wounds so you don’t have to touch them with your fingers.
“Mothers say their kids feel warm,” says Dr. Norwood, “but doctors will ask, ‘Do you have a thermometer?’ ” The difference between 99 and 102 can mean the difference between staying home and going to the doctor’s office. As for fever reducers, there are multiple options, including aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. But be mindful of drug interactions and age appropriateness. “Children cannot have aspirin,” Dr. Norwood points out. “It puts them at risk for Reye’s syndrome.” Many children have a hard time swallowing tablets, too, so make sure to have liquid or chewable versions at the ready.
Cold and flu
“If adults have a cold for longer than a week, we recommend they come into the office,” says Dr. Norwood. In the meantime, antihistamines, decongestants and cough suppressants can offer a measure of relief. But before you even need them, ask your doctor’s advice. Some over-the-counter meds can increase blood pressure or interact with other drugs. The flu can involve fever, headache and body aches as well, in which case a fever and pain reliever comes in handy.
Allergies and skin irritations
Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl or generics) are a must in any medicine cabinet. Mild allergic reactions – a slight rash, watery eyes, sneezing or sniffling – can arise anytime and you never know when one might strike. Stock chewables for youngsters. Allergy medications in oral or topical forms can be helpful come spring and fall. And remember pink calamine lotion from your youth? “That can help with poison ivy or poison oak,” Dr. Norwood says. “Also keep hydrocortisone cream on hand for heat rashes or minor skin irritations.” Finally, if anyone in your family has a history of severe or life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), ask your doctor about an Epi-Pen®, including instructions on when and how to use it.
Got a stomach bug? Leave it be. “We don’t like to use medication to stop diarrhea,” which can help clean your system of bad bugs, Dr. Norwood says. Even so, over-the-counter diarrhea and constipation medications do have a place in your medicine cabinet if the problem is due to poor diet, for example. “Those medications can have short-term uses. And if you’re not having frequent bowel movements, fiber supplements can help.” Antacids are useful to have for occasional sour stomach, but if you’re experiencing symptoms more than two or three times a week, check in with your doctor.
Purging your cabinet
Dr. Norwood suggests taking stock of your home pharmacy once a year and tossing expired items. For disposal of medications other than narcotics, Dr. Norwood suggests mixing them in a bag with coffee grounds, used cat litter or dirt and tossing them in your trash. For narcotics, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist about disposal and watch for community take-back events.
Click here for a printable medicine cabinet checklist.