Wholly Healthy: The Wonders of Over-the-Counter Drugs

I recently had an enormous kidney stone. Okay — it seemed enormous to me. But in terms of kidney stones, it was reasonably large — nine millimeters, in fact. Large enough that I had to have lithotripsy (the use of sound waves to break up the stone) performed by my friend and most excellent urologist, Dr. Robert McAlpine in Seneca, S.C.

As uncomfortable as the whole experience was (and it wasn’t my first rodeo, either), I was reminded of something very important, which is that prescription drugs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, the best pain relief I had from my kidney stone involved the little blue wonder-pill (for which I would have given a lot of money, let me say): the humble, the magnificent, Naproxen (a.k.a. Aleve). The reason for this is that the class of drugs to which Aleve belongs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents, or NSAIDs) acts to relax the spasms of the ureter, which is the tube from the kidney to the bladder where the demonic stone takes up residence and tortures its victims. When the spasm relaxes, the pain improves.

This is relevant for many conditions and situations — from kidney stones to cough — because the things found in the average pharmacy or grocery store are magnificent medical manna from heaven. Actually, I remember one of my medical school instructors at West Virginia University, Dr. DiBartolomeo, encouraging us to wander the aisles of the local pharmacy and be awed by the variety of useful things on the shelves.

In an age when tremendous numbers of people take too many prescriptions and when vast numbers are addicted to narcotic pain killers, it’s good for us to remember that there are simpler ways to manage our acute illnesses and simpler tools to employ in the task. I’m sure I have previously subjected the reader to my rants on treating fever, but in a nutshell, “Fever is natural, usually good, and can be treated with ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen … over the counter.”

Bitten by an insect and itching? Inexpensive antihistamines abound in the local pharmacy, which is a true cornucopia of possible allergy therapies. Sore muscles? Twisted ankle? NSAIDs like Aleve or Advil are sitting in their bottles, bursting with willingness to treat the pain of injury (or kidney stone, as related above). Mild poison ivy dermatitis? Calamine lotion and antihistamines are a nice, soothing option for treatment. Ingrown toenail? There are antibiotic ointments, salt-soaks and other wonders. Dirty wound? Pour some peroxide in it and watch the chemical go to work! (Kids love it, and it doesn’t hurt.) Head cold driving you crazy? Antibiotics won’t help, but some pseudoephedrine or saline nasal spray might get you through.

If you take medications or have medical problems already, check with your pharmacist about side effects and interactions. But just remember that there are lots of nice ways to treat your common medical problems that don’t require a doctor visit or an expensive prescription.