With spring just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to restock your medicine cabinet to ensure you’re ready in case of emergency. We’ve gathered expert advice to give us the goods on everything you need.
Since we reach for what’s in our medicine cabinets in urgent situations, it’s well worth planning ahead and being prepared for those emergencies. If you wait until you’re feeling unwell, it might be too late to go out and get the over-the-counter (OTC) medication you need...Imagine trying to get to the pharmacy with explosive diarrhea! But also, in the uncertainty of today’s world—where there may be ongoing lockdowns in your region, or inclement weather that prevents you from leaving home—the importance of a well-stocked medicine cabinet speaks for itself. Here’s how to make sure you’ve got all your provisions on hand.
Step One: Talk to your doctor
Have a conversation with your health-care provider about the concerns that may arise for you and your family. While the last year has been stressful, especially for the health-care community, family physician and Saskatchewan Medical Association president Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz reminds us that “family physicians, pharmacists and health- care professionals are there for you and still able to help with diagnoses and conditions you are facing—whether COVID-19 or non-COVID-19 related. A trusting relationship with your health-care provider is the most important thing you have.”
Step Two: Educate yourself
“Taking a first aid course is invaluable, and ensures that you’re aware of proper procedures,” says Dr. Konstantynowicz. The Canadian Red Cross offers first aid courses, as well as a mobile app that provides general information about medical issues. A little bit of preparation and education can make a huge difference in an emergency. “It’s crucially important to know what’s in your medicine cabinet, how everything is used and what doses are safe and appropriate,” stresses Kelly Kizlyk, pharmacist and drug information consultant at medSask, an organization based out of the University of Saskatchewan. If you’re using a natural remedy, research the product to ensure its quality, as well as potential benefits and risks. “Follow the directions of any OTC medication you take, and ask a health-care professional if you have questions or are using a product for the first time,” adds Dr. Konstantynowicz.
Step Three: Choose the right products
Think about your specific needs—like your age, location, family and overall health. With so many options on the market, treatments are often individualized. “Get advice from your health-care provider about what’s available for your unique genetics, lifestyle and psycho-social environment,” says Dr. Konstantynowicz. Pharmacy shelves can be overwhelming, and it may be better for you to avoid certain medications. “Don’t hesitate to ask a pharmacist for help in navigating the aisles,” urges Kizlyk. Likewise, naturopath Robyn Prescott in Kamloops, B.C. says, “It’s equally important to learn about natural treatments and how to use them. Talk to a professional about the best options for you.”
Think about your specific needs—with so many options on the market, treatments are often individualized.
Step Four: Clean routinely
Experts recommend going through your medicine cabinet every six months or so to check that your products are in-date and that you have everything you might need. “Tacking it on to some of the other tasks that we do with the changing of the seasons can be a helpful reminder to sort through the medicine cabinet and make sure you’ve got sufficient stock for the months ahead,” advises Kizlyk.
First aid kit: Invest in a small kit from the pharmacy that includes everything you might need in case of an emergency: various sizes of bandages and dressings, tape, tweezers and the like. Or, check out the Canadian Red Cross website for a list of supplies to create your own.
Digital thermometer: Whether you have an ear, forehead or oral thermometer, the most important thing is to know how to use it properly. Oral syringe or calibrated medicine cup “A teaspoon doesn’t cut it,” says pharmacist Kelly Kizlyk. “You need something with measurements on it so you can be confident that you’re taking a safe dose.”
Hand sanitizer: Keep up to date with Health Canada regulations, and check that your product is registered and has not been recalled.
Pill splitter: If you regularly cut pills, it's essential to ensure you’re getting the correct dose.
Hot/cold packs: Whether in the form of a hot water bottle, instant ice pack or a hot/cold compress, you’ll be amazed at the ways to use it, from soothing minor injuries and headaches to coughs and colds to skin irritations!
At-home health monitors: Important devices, such as blood glucose or blood pressure monitors, for those with chronic medical conditions.
Aches & Pains: Analgesic medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen (such as Tylenol, Advil and Aleve, respectively) are common over-the-counter painkillers. “There are differences among pain relievers, so it’s definitely a good idea to have a chat with your health-care provider about when you might choose one product over another,” says Kizlyk. Topical agents, whether patches or creams, can be effective
for sore muscles or joint pain, says Dr. Konstantynowicz. Prescott also recommends topical treatments containing menthol or camphor, since these ingredients contain substance P inhibitors, which may help to decrease the sensation of pain in the body. (Note that these should never be used on open wounds.)
Fevers: “Fever plays a role in helping your body kill off an infection,” says Prescott, “so it’s important to know when to treat it with medication.” Normal body temperature averages around 37°C but can fluctuate as much as 0.6°C during the day. A fever is considered at a thermometer reading at or above 37.6°C (oral or underarm) or 38°C (rectal or ear). Infants less than three months old, children appearing very sick (very sleepy, confused, irritable, crying inconsolably), anyone with a stiff neck or seizure, new wheeze or cough, or people undergoing chemotherapy who have a fever should receive immediate medical attention.
Fever is a symptom, says Kizlyk. “It’s generally not harmful and usually resolves without treatment.” To treat the discomfort of fever, you can use OTC medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which come in pills, capsules, liquids and chewable tablets. Prescott adds that “hydration is essential as fevers burn up your fluids.” She recommends a low-sugar electrolyte tablet that provides your body with the necessary nutrients to effectively absorb water.
Allergies: As a potential alternative to conventional allergy medication for non-emergency, seasonal afflictions like hay fever, Prescott suggests “trying a quercetin supplement, which is a mast cell stabilizer and helps stop the allergic cascading response in the body.” But since you never know when an allergic reaction might pop up, it’s a good idea to have a general all-purpose antihistamine (like Benadryl) on hand that works on both seasonal allergies and allergic reactions. If medication is something you take every day, “your pharmacist can help you choose certain products over others to avoid drowsiness or to target specific symptoms,” says Kizlyk.
Coughs & Colds: Among the most effective treatments for coughs and colds are the preventive ones. Prescott suggests a natural sore throat spray, which can help prevent colds and also treat sore throats. Zinc lozenges are also a good preventive option because they stimulate the immune system. Since minerals don’t leave your body as quickly, she advises, “only taking zinc right before you feel a cold coming on or while you have it, and that’s it. Long-term use is not recommended.” Once the cough or cold has set in, treat the specific symptoms that you’re experiencing. For stuffy noses, Kizlyk suggests a decongestant (like Sudafed), and for runny noses, an antihistamine.
When it comes to a cough, there are plenty of cough suppressants and syrups on the market, but Kizlyk warns, “there isn’t a lot of proof that cough medicines work well, so it may be worth talking about other options with your health-care provider.” Keep in mind that “for children under 6, the general recommendation is to avoid multipurpose cough and cold medications, as they may be more harmful than helpful,” says Kizlyk.
Skin Conditions: For a really good multitasking treatment, Kizlyk recommends a hydrocortisone cream because it’ll work on pesky insect bites, skin rashes and itchy spots. “Natural ingredients, like calendula and oat (Avena sativa), can also be effective for calming irritated skin due to bug bites or rashes,” says Prescott. “Keep in mind, though, they may not address the underlying issue.”
Bumps & Scrapes: For open wounds, an antibiotic ointment is key, and many experts recommend using a triple formulation (like Polysporin) since it both protects against infection and aids in healing. There are natural alternatives out there as well. “Tea tree oil is great for preventing infection in little cuts or scratches and seems to improve healing,” says Prescott. For bumps and bruises, the co-founder and president of Zax Healthcare Inc., Alyssa Rolnick, recommends the brand’s top-selling bruise cream. Also available is a heel spur cream specifically for relief from plantar fasciitis and foot pain. Packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients, it also works wonders on the dry, cracked skin of the feet.
Tummy Troubles: Stomach pain can be tricky because it comes with a wide variety of symptoms. So a good start is an all-purpose bismuth subsalicylate product (like Pepto-Bismol) for the breadth of treatment options it provides—we all know the jingle. You may also want to keep a few targeted remedies at the ready as well, specifically anti-nauseant and anti-diarrheal medications (such as Gravol and Imodium, respectively) because it’s tricky to purchase them while you’re experiencing symptoms. As an aside: Did you know that food can also be used to treat certain complaints? Dr. Konstantynowicz recommends the BRATT diet for looser bowels: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast and tea, which are all easily digestible and help to settle the tummy. For constipation, she recommends increasing liquids and foods high in fibre, and avoiding binding foods like cheese.
For bloating and gas, Prescott suggests a digestive enzyme complex, which contains plant-based nutrients and enzymes that help your body digest your food. For heartburn, most people find an OTC antacid (like TUMS) can work for them. As an alternative, the naturopath recommends deglycyrrhizinated licorice or DGL, “which comes in a chewable tablet that treats heartburn and also coats the esophagus and helps prevent damage.” For persistent or recurring heartburn or other tummy troubles, it’s important to have a conversation with your health-care provider to see if there are underlying issues in need of further treatment.
Medication should always be stored in a safe location out of reach of vulnerable people, children and pets. It’s also important to keep medication in its original container and consult the product label for specific storage instructions. We often think of the medicine cabinet residing in the bathroom; however, it’s not necessarily the best place. “Remember that temperature, humidity and exposure to air or light can all affect your medication,” says Kizlyk. A cool, dry place is ideal, like the linen closet or kitchen cupboard. She also recommends making sure everyone in your household knows where life-saving medications are stored. Think about labelling the cabinet, so if needed, it’s easy to find.
Experts advise avoiding the use of products after their expiry date has passed, as they may start to lose potency and quality. Some products may lose efficacy more quickly—so something like a cream or ointment will be different from a tablet. Check with your pharmacist about using medications after their expiry date, as it may be safe and necessary to use them under certain circumstances, says Kizlyk. For some creams and ointments that may not have expiry dates, Rolnick says, “if the products are safety sealed, one year from package opening is a common rule of thumb. Check that the texture, colour and smell haven’t changed, since the active ingredients can become ineffective and some can also go rancid over time.” Other products, such as nasal sprays or eye drops, have limited shelf lives once opened, explains Dr. Konstantynowicz. “Don’t save these types of products for future events (even if they’re unfinished). They are no longer safe to use due to risk of contamination from previous usage.” Of course, expiry dates are vitally important for life-saving medication, like Epipens, so always these items in-date and ready to go.
Never throw medication (OTC or prescribed) in the garbage or flush it down the toilet or sink. It has the potential to get into the hands of someone who could be seriously harmed, or to contaminate our waterways and environment. Always bring expired products or those you’re no longer using to your local pharmacy for safe disposal.
Tips for Women
Menstruation: Troublesome cramps can be treated with an anti-inflammatory pain reliever like ibuprofen or naproxen.
Peri-menopause: Many women experience a variety of symptoms. For hot flashes, it might be a matter of putting a fan by your bedside or dressing in layers of breathable clothing. For more severe cases, talk to your doctor about hormonal or non-hormonal treatment options.
Menopause: Some women experience vaginal dryness, so consider keeping a water-based lubricant in your medicine cabinet.
At any age: If you’re prone to yeast infections, it can be worthwhile to keep a reliable treatment on hand.
For persistent issues, always speak to your health-care provider.
Quick Tip: If you take multiple medications, be aware of contraindications, both with OTC products and prescriptions. This goes for natural supplements and other alternative treatments, too—always speak with your health-care professionals about any possible interactions.