As part of an ongoing initiative to remove unsafe and unapproved drugs from the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Wednesday that it was pulling 500 allergy, cough, and cold medications off pharmacists' shelves. According to the agency, some of the drugs were introduced onto the market before new rules related to efficacy and safety were in place, but some are simply illegal and were introduced by unscrupulous drug makers.
The details: The FDA has asked the companies making these drugs to stop manufacturing them within 90 days, and to remove them from the market completely within 180 days. In many cases, the drugs being removed contain combinations of ingredients that are safe individually, but in combination could pose problems, says Lisa Fowler, PharmD, director of management and professional affairs at the National Community Pharmacists Association. She adds that some of the drugs are being pulled because they have "time-release" formulas that may not release medications properly. "Some of the testing that FDA has done has caused them to question whether the claim is valid," she notes. "They're either releasing too much too quickly, or so slowly that you're not getting what you pay for." That's a particular problem with things like decongestants and sedating antihistamines. "If a decongestant is released too quickly, your pulse may quicken or your blood pressure may increase too fast," she says.
Another concern with many of these drugs is that they're not labeled properly for children. Children under 6 who take certain cough and cold medications are at risk for overdosing or getting too high a dose of sedating ingredients and winding up in the emergency room, Fowler adds.
What it means: The FDA's action includes some fairly common medications, Fowler says. "There are certainly some names on their list that I recognize, and certainly drugs that, when I was practicing, I dispensed more frequently than others," she says. Some of them are even listed in the Physicians Desk Reference, the bible of drug listings that every doctor has at easy disposal. "They're not pulling them out of some back closet somewhere." So it's worth going through your medicine cabinet and comparing what you have with the FDA's rather exhaustive unappoved drug list. If it turns out you or a family member is taking an unapproved drug, Fowler suggests calling your doctor or pharmacist about other options before you stop taking it completely.
Consider an over-the-counter cough or cold medication the next time you get sick or need to treat occasional spring allergies. "For cough and cold, many of the over-the-counter drugs can be just as effective as prescription products," Fowler says. And all over-the-counter products are required to meet with FDA approval; it's usually harder for counterfeit drugs or other unapproved products to make it to market this way. If the over-the-counter stuff doesn't do the trick, you may need something stronger, she cautions. A bad cough, for instance, may be bronchitis or a bacterial infection that's getting out of control.
Of course, prevention is always better than a cure, so try one of these natural remedies to prevent your next cold or allergy attack:
Chewing a clove of garlic once a day has been found to prevent colds, but your breath may be less offensive if you take garlic supplements.
Research has found that broccoli, citrus fruits, collard greens, and kale can help you prep for, and deal with, spring allergies like hay fever.
Washing your hands is about the most effective form of cold prevention. Avoid soaps with toxic antibacterials like triclosan, an EPA-registered pesticide that can disrupt hormones. The FDA has even admitted that regular soap and water are just as effective as chemical antibacterials.
In the rare instance when you can't wash your hands, go with a hand sanitizer to prevent colds. Just make your own, because triclosan pops up in commercial hand sanitizers as well as soaps. Here is a recipe for making your own natural hand sanitizer:
2 ounces vodka
4 to 5 drops essential oil such as tea tree or eucalyptus, or a combination
2 teaspoons witch hazel
Mix well, and pour into a spritzer bottle for a homemade hand sanitizer!