When Should I Treat Symptoms with a Prescription?

When Should I Treat Symptoms with a Prescription?

Sometimes an over-the-counter medication is all that's needed to relieve a sore throat, stuffy nose or splitting headache. But other times, symptoms of illness require more than a quick trip to the drugstore for relief.

M. Luke Bobbitt Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacist for Bethesda North Hospital , says you should consult a pharmacist whenever you're unsure of how to treat your symptoms.

There are a few main factors a pharmacist considers before recommending an over-the-counter medication versus a trip to a physician, Bobbitt says.

When talking to a pharmacist about your symptoms, know the answers to these questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • Are your symptoms changing?
  • Where are they located?
  • When did your symptoms start?
  • What have you done so far?
  • What makes your symptoms better?
  • What makes your symptoms worse?

Know Your Normal 

Often, a few key answers to some of the above questions will determine a pharmacist's recommendation, Bobbitt says, but there's no hard-and-fast rule. It's more important for people to know what's normal for their body and what isn't.

"You know your body better than anyone, at the end of the day," he says. "For one person, under the weather for three-to-four days is normal, whereas another person would be in the hospital on day one."

It's best to use more caution than not, especially in winter months and for older adults.

Seek Medical Care for These Symptoms 

There are a few serious symptoms for which Bobbitt would strongly encourage a visit to a physician:

  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting
  • Fever of 101.5 degrees or greater

"Persistent vomiting and diarrhea will lead to dehydration," Bobbitt says. He also advises to keep a thermometer handy. "When you get to 101.5 or 102, that's when you need to think about going to a physician and treatment with over-the-counter drugs is not the best."

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Last Updated: January 21, 2015