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13 OTCs To Keep in Your Medicine Cabinet

cartoon medicine cabinet with medicines

So, it’s the middle of the night, and you wake up with a scratchy throat and runny nose. You know over-the-counter medicines can give you quick relief, but when you open your medicine cabinet, you’re out of stock, or the medications are past their expiration dates. 

A well-stocked medicine cabinet can save you a trip to the pharmacy for everything from a pesky cold to a paper cut. That’s why it’s a good idea to review your medicine cabinet from time to time and make sure you have some common over-the-counter medications and first aid supplies on hand. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need to be prepared with enough medical supplies in case we get stuck at home for days or even weeks. 

Here are 13 OTC medications and items that you should consider keeping at home in case of an emergency. 

Keep in mind that over-the-counter medications work well for minor symptoms and injuries. If your symptoms are severe or last more than a few days, please go to a doctor’s office and get evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Over The Counter Fever Reducers and Pain Relievers

These are some of the most common medications found in America’s medicine cabinets. 


Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) is an effective fever reducer and pain reliever. It can be used in both children and adults. 

  • Check with your child’s doctor or read the package instructions for pediatric doses. It’s a good idea to have a forehead or rectal thermometer on hand if your child is too young for oral thermometers.
  • Check if any of your other medications also contain acetaminophen. It is present in many over-the-counter cough and cold remedies. Taking more than the maximum daily dose of acetaminophen can be harmful to your liver. 


Aspirin (brand names Anacin, Bufferin, and others) can reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pains such as headache, toothache, muscle aches, menstrual cramps, and minor arthritis pain. 

  • Aspirin is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This class of medications can be irritating to the stomach. Ask your doctor before using this medicine if you have stomach issues such as bleeding and ulcers.
  • Aspirin can interfere with blood clotting; aspirin makes it easier for you to bleed. Talk to your doctor before taking aspirin if you are on prescription blood-thinning medication or if you are scheduled for surgery.

Other Nonsteroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs

Ibuprofen (brand names Advil, Motrin) and naproxen sodium (brand names Aleve, Naprosyn) are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They are effective fever reducers, painkillers, and anti-inflammatory drugs. 

  • You should not take more than one NSAID at the same time. If a medication is not effective, talk to a doctor about other treatment options.
  • People with a history of heart disease, stomach bleeding or kidney disease should talk to their doctor before using NSAIDs.

Cough and Cold Meds

It’s a good idea to check your medicine cabinet and restock it with these OTC medications before flu season starts. 


There are two decongestants available over the counterphenylephrine (Mucinex Fast-Max Severe Cold and DayQuil Severe Cold & Flu) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed and Sinarest). 

  • Products containing pseudoephedrine are required by Federal law to be placed behind the pharmacy counter, and you’ll have to show a form of identification such as a driver's license before you can buy them.
  • Always consult a doctor before giving cough and cold medicines to children and elderly people. 

Cough Drops and Cough Syrup

Cough suppressants that contain dextromethorphan (brand names DayQuil Cough, Robitussin Maximum Strength Cough, and Delsym) work well for a dry, hacking cough. Cough medicines containing the expectorant guaifenesin (brand names Mucinex, Tussin Expectorant, and Robitussin Mucus + Chest Congestion) help to loosen secretions and are good if your cough is producing mucus or phlegm.

  • Seek care from a healthcare professional if your cough lasts more than a week or is accompanied by fever. It could be something more serious.
  • Always use a medication dose-measuring spoon or oral syringe to measure cough syrup, not a regular kitchen spoon. Ask your pharmacist if you do not have a medicine-measuring device at home. 


Antihistamines in your medicine cabinet can treat symptoms of allergies and give you relief from a runny nose, sneezing, itching, watery eyes, congestion, hay fever, hives, conjunctivitis, insect bites and stings. Examples include chlorpheniramine (present in brand name Chlor-Trimeton), diphenhydramine (present in brand name Benadryl), and clemastine (present in brand name Tavist Allergy 12 Hour Relief).

  • If you find that an antihistamine makes you tired, ask your pharmacist to recommend a non-drowsy antihistamine or try taking the medicine just before bedtime.
  • Antihistamines can cause side effects like dizziness, drowsiness, and blurred vision. Do not drive or do anything that requires focus until you know how the medicine affects you.

Eye Drops

OTC eye drops can help relieve itchy eyes, redness, watering, and puffiness. They frequently contain antihistamines and a redness reliever (Opcon-Aand Naphcon A). 

  • Don’t apply too much eye drop all at once. The eye can only hold about one to two drops at a time. The rest will simply roll down your face and be wasted.
  • If you’re using a mix of prescription and OTC eye drops, space them out between 5 to 10 minutes. Using them together may make them less effective.

Medications for Digestive Problems

From acid reflux to diarrhea, these medicines can relieve a range of gastrointestinal symptoms. 


These medicines work by neutralizing stomach acid. They can provide immediate relief from heartburn and are must-haves in your medicine cabinet. Popular brands include Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, Mylanta, Gelusil, Alka-Seltzer, and Pepto-Bismol. 

  • Frequent use of antacids can cause diarrhea or constipation. Read the package instructions carefully and take only the recommended amount.
  • It is generally okay to drink alcohol while taking antacids but remember that alcohol can irritate the stomach and worsen your symptoms.

Anti-Diarrheal Medicines

OTC medications that can provide relief if you have diarrhea include loperamide (Imodium A-D) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). 

  • Don’t take more than one anti-diarrheal at the same time they could have the same ingredients, and it could result in an overdose.
  • If you are taking prescription medications, ask your doctor if it is okay to take OTC diarrhea remedies.

Medicines for Skin Problems

Below are some medicine cabinet staples for rash, hives, bug bites, allergic reactions, minor cuts, or burns.

Antihistamine Cream

A cream such as Benadryl Itch Stopping Cream can help relieve itching. You can also consider having Ivarest on hand, which contains a combination of an antihistamine and soothing calamine lotion. 

  • Do not apply an antihistamine cream without talking to a doctor first if you have eczema or badly broken skin.
  • An antihistamine cream works best for insect bites and stings if you use it as soon as possible after the bite or sting.

Hydrocortisone Cream 

Hydrocortisone cream 1% is available OTC and can help relieve intense itching, redness, swelling, and discomfort due to various skin conditions.

  • Topical hydrocortisone creams are for external use on the skin only. Do not let the medicine get into your eyes.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after applying the medicine. 

Other Items For Your Medicine Cabinet

First Aid Kit

Your medicine cabinet should contain a first aid kit with adhesive bandages in various sizes, gauze pads, medical tape, antiseptic wipes, petroleum jelly, antibiotic ointment, and hydrogen peroxide to treat minor cuts and scrapes. 

Dental Supplies

OTC products like Zilactin, Orajel, and Anbesol can relieve toothaches, teething pain, cold sores, and canker sores. You can also consider keeping a dental repair kit in your medicine cabinet, which can be used to replace a lost filling or crown temporarily.


  1. https://www.renewuhc.com/article/plan-resources/12-items-every-older-adult-should-keep-medicine-cabinet-and-6-avoid