The Dangers of Self-Medication

“He who self-medicates has a fool for a doctor.” Have you heard that one? There’s a real danger with home and over-the-counter remedies — do you know what they are?

  1. You may have misdiagnosed the problem. That may mean that you’re taking medication you don’t need… and the problem is still raging.
  2. You may have correctly diagnosed the problem but are taking the wrong things. Again, this is a situation where the problem might be getting worse instead of better.
  3. You may have correctly diagnosed the problem but over-the-counter remedies aren’t strong enough. At best, the problem may be holding steady instead of getting worse.
  4. The home remedy you choose may interact with other medications you are already taking. Drug interactions can be a dangerous thing, too.
  5. The home remedy you choose may fix one problem but aggravate another. (For example, some cold medications can raise blood pressure.)

One of the biggest dangers of self-medication is the delay. A minor health issue — that could be cleared up easily with a doctor’s care — may become a major health issue over time. Here’s an example from my own life: when I was in college, I had strep throat. The infirmary at school didn’t test for it, and didn’t give me anything more than cough drops. Within a few days, I developed scarlet fever! While it would have been relatively simple to deal with the strep, the delay in treatment made things much worse.

Confession time: I do care for certain things at home, but they’re things that I know how to treat because I have experienced them time and again (like sinus infections) and I always set a point where I’ll seek professional help. But even then, there’s a danger that I’ve made a wrong diagnosis and am on the wrong track for treatment. That’s why having a “deadline” is a good idea — for example, if I’m treating a sinus infection with sinus rinses but am still showing symptoms after 3 days, I’ll call the doctor. There are other things — like an infected cat bite from work — that I don’t try to treat at home. At the first signs of infection, I’m right there at the doctor’s office.

So how do you draw the line? It’s a tough choice to make. Sometimes finances or simply timing (the office is closed) prevent a trip to the doctor’s office. Tools like online symptom checkers make us think we know what we’re doing, but many times, symptoms can mean a lot of different possible health issues. Some people assume that treating a health issue with herbal remedies makes it “safe” — but some herbs can interact with other medications or impact other health issues.

Personally, I think the best thing you can do is know your own body. If you want to treat problems at home, set a “deadline” when a problem arises, and stick with it. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist about the herbal or over-the-counter remedies you want to try, to make sure they won’t cause problems with other medications or other health issues.

And if you aren’t sure, talk to a health care professional. That is your best chance to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.