The keys to self-medication

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Image of two women talking about responsible self-medication
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What is responsible self-medication?

You have probably heard of the term “self-medication” at some time, and you have also heard good and bad things said about it.

The first thing to know is that there is a type of self-medication called responsible self-medication that even the WHO can recommend. Today in this article we will talk about each of them and go deeper into the subject.


What is self-medication and what are its consequences?

Self-medication is the use of medicines to face a disease or ailment, or to alleviate a symptom without the previous advice of a specialized physician. It is administered by choice, without a doctor’s prescription or on the advice of someone unqualified.

Self-medication has some risks, since its use on one’s own may cause damage to the patient’s health. If the patient is not adequately informed about these medications, some effects may occur frequently, such as allergy, intoxication, infections and even, in the worst case, death.

In children, pregnant women and adults, due to their special situation, there are usually more serious problems, so self-medication is totally inadvisable in these stages of life.


What is responsible self-medication according to OMS?

self-medication according to OMS


We already know what conventional self-medication is, but what does the OMS say about self-medication? According to the World Health Organization (OMS), self-medication is defined as the selection and use of medicines by individuals to treat self-recognized diseases or symptoms.

The WHO recommends responsible medication and establishes recommendations for the use of over-the-counter medicines:

Treatment options must be effective in alleviating the symptoms that warrant their use. These symptoms generally must be self-limiting in nature, meaning that they do not worsen over time. In addition, it is crucial that treatments are reliable, providing a consistent and rapid response so that people taking them can experience their benefits in a noticeable way.

Of course, safety is paramount, as these treatments are used in situations with a good prognosis and do not require specialized knowledge for their identification. Since these diseases are common and have distinctive characteristics, their diagnosis should be easy to make.

Finally, it is important that the use of these treatments be simple and convenient, avoiding the need for complicated or uncommon precautions on the part of the users.

In short, the idea is to self-medicate only those times when the pathology is mild, short and we know it previously. That is to say, those occasions in which we have already gone to a specialist for the same cause and the treatment has always been the same. So we already know the complete treatment for this minor ailment.

A clear rule to know if you are self-medicating responsibly is to find out if the medicine you want to buy or take requires a prescription. If so, it is better to consult a physician before starting treatment.


What are the types of self-medication?

It is important to be aware of the different types of self-medication in order to properly assess the associated risks. The following are some common examples of self-medication:

  1. Self-medicating with drugs that are not authorized without a prescription (they are not available over-the-counter).
  2. Self-medicating with medications prescribed by a physician for the treatment of a past illness.
  3. Self-medicating with drugs prescribed to someone else for a “similar” condition.


These are some of the medications commonly used by most patients who have practiced self-medication:

  1. Topical antiseptics.
  2. Vitamin and mineral supplements.
  3. Anti-influenza and antitussives.
  4. Digestives, laxatives, antacids and antiflatulents.
  5. Analgesics
  6. Antibiotics


Analgesics and antibiotics are among the most commonly used in self-medication and also the most dangerous, both of which can pose risks both individually and collectively, due to the possible generalization of bacterial resistance.


adult woman self-medicating

How to perform responsible self-medication?

In order to practice responsible self-medication, it is necessary to be well informed about the type of medicines that can be taken without consulting a doctor. Generally, this is a practice indicated for natural products and in the recommendations given by professionals, antibiotics are almost never indicated.

Advantages and disadvantages of responsible self-medication:

Advantages of responsible self-medication:

  • Health care alternative for mild and known health conditions.
  • It satisfies physical and psychological needs, providing immediate relief of symptoms.
  • It can contribute to public welfare by enabling faster and more accessible care.
  • Promotes the individual’s co-responsibility for his/her health care.
  • Relatively inexpensive compared to medical consultations.


Disadvantages of responsible self-medication:

  • Risk of adverse reactions, from mild to severe, and potentially dangerous physiological and metabolic alterations.
  • Possibility of masking symptoms of serious diseases and delaying appropriate treatment
  • Interference with the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
  • Potential interactions with other drugs, alcohol or food, which may be dangerous
  • Development of antibiotic-resistant strains and possible effects on the fetus in pregnant women.
  • Risk of physical and psychological dependence on some medications.
  • Possibility of immunological reactions and aggravation of pathological conditions.


What is the risk of self-medication?

Self-medication can have many of risks, among them are the following:

  • Aggravation of the disease. By self-medicating without an accurate medical diagnosis, the medications selected may not be the most appropriate to treat the specific condition and there is a risk that symptoms may worsen or the disease may not be adequately treated.
  • Adverse or unwanted effects. Medications are not harmless and may have side or unwanted effects. Each person is unique and may react differently to medications. Without the supervision of a healthcare professional, there is an increased risk of experiencing these effects, such as allergic reactions, drug interactions or unforeseen complications.
  • Intoxication. Irresponsible self-medication can lead to accidental overdose or incorrect use of medications. This can result in poisoning, especially if incorrect doses are taken or different medications are combined without due caution. Some medications, such as opioid pain relievers, tranquilizers, or heart medications, may have a potential for abuse and addiction if used incorrectly
  • Concealment of another, more serious health problem. Self-medication can mask the symptoms of a more serious underlying illness. By treating symptoms superficially without addressing the underlying cause, you risk delaying the diagnosis and proper treatment of more serious medical conditions. This can lead to unnecessary complications and long-term deterioration of health.
  • Development of resistance to an antibiotic. Inappropriate or excessive use of antibiotics can contribute to the development of bacterial resistance. Self-medication with antibiotics without the supervision of a physician can lead to incorrect use of these drugs, which favors the emergence of resistant bacteria. This limits the effectiveness of antibiotics when they are really needed, jeopardizing the treatment of serious infections.


Medicine shelf in a pharmacy. What can be taken to responsibly self-medicate.


Why is it important to avoid self-medication?

Avoiding self-medication ensures the safety and efficacy of treatment, allows for proper diagnosis, prevents negative drug-drug interactions and helps to combat antimicrobial resistance. It is always advisable to seek the guidance of a health professional before taking any medication.


What factors influence self-medication?

If you are wondering why the population self-medicates? We can tell you that the main factors are the lack of time to go to the doctor’s office, the long waiting lines at the Health Service or the lack of medical attention. In addition to having knowledge about medicines or by the advice and recommendation of the staff of pharmacies or drugstores.

Another of the most frequent reasons is having previously suffered from the same disease or having similar symptoms. In this case, it is likely that the person will resume taking the same medication that he/she took in the past.


What organ is damaged by taking pills?

The liver is a vital organ that helps break down certain medications in the body. This includes both over-the-counter medications and those prescribed by a doctor. However, in some people, this process is slower, which increases the risk of liver damage.

There are medications that can cause hepatitis even in small doses, even if the liver is functioning properly. On the other hand, taking large amounts of medications can damage a healthy liver.

There are several medications that can affect the liver. A common example is the overuse of painkillers and fever-reducing medications containing acetaminophen, especially when taken in doses much higher than recommended. People who abuse alcohol are also at increased risk for liver problems related to these medications.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen, can also cause drug-induced hepatitis.


How to prevent the misuse of medicines?

Self-medication is an everyday occurrence in most Spanish households, although awareness is growing and the number of people who suffer harm as a result of self-medication is gradually decreasing. However, we must continue to reverse this fact and teach patients to use medicines correctly.

Physicians and health centers should be updated and constantly develop informative and educational measures, both in their day-to-day work and every time they prescribe a drug to a specific patient.

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