"I have a cold. What can I take for it?"
I get this question at least once a day, but I never feel comfortable answering it. It's not that I don't know how to treat common cold symptoms. I just don't know how to explain to people that the answer isn't necessarily in one medication bottle.
Whenever people ask for a recommendation about what to take for a cold, the first question I always ask is what symptoms they have. I can't make a proper recommendation without knowing what symptoms I'm trying to treat.
Great... I'll always follow up by asking whether the cough is productive or dry, but the answer doesn't really matter I suppose. By this point, we all know that dextromethorphan does absolutely nothing to relieve coughing. Therefore, all OTC cough suppressants are ruled out. For productive coughs, most pharmacists will recommend Mucinex. However, if we're going by evidence, there's not much evidence that guaifenesin loosens up mucous, so I always hesitate before making that recommendation.
According to the American College of Chest Physicians, acute cough should be treated with a first generation antihistamine, like clorpheniramine, and pseudoephedrine. They also say naproxen can be used to help reduce cough. Nowhere in the entire executive summary of the cough guidelines does it mention guaifenesin, dextromethorphan, or any opioid cough suppressant for that matter. There's very little evidence that they actually reduce cough.
How do you explain that to a customer though? When there are dozens of products in the OTC aisle that say "cough and cold" on the box, how do you explain to people that most of them are unlikely to reduce cough? You have to see the looks customers give me when I go out in the aisle and grab a box of store brand "Allergy Medication" (containing chlorpheniramine) as a recommendation to reduce cough. They think I'm crazy.
Moving away from cold medication... People often ask about vitamins. "What brand multivitamin should I take?" is a very common question. My response: You probably don't need to take a multivitamin.
People have this obsession with vitamins. They think they're the answer to all their ailments. However, in most cases vitamins are a waste of money. Unless a doctor diagnoses you with a specific vitamin deficiency, there's really no need to take a multivitamin. In fact, a recent large study showed that taking antioxidant vitamins not only didn't increase life expectancy and reduce the incidence of diseases like cancer, but people who took them actually had a 16% increase in mortality.
The modern diet, as poor as it might be in terms of overall health, usually provides enough of all the important vitamins to stave off any deficiency condition. About the only vitamin that a normal person might need to supplement is Vitamin D, and that's because we lather sunscreen all over ourselves, and sunlight is needed for the body to produce Vitamin D. Otherwise, if you aren't malnourished, you probably get plenty of vitamins in your diet.
You can show people a million studies on this stuff, but they won't listen. It's ingrained in their minds that vitamins are good for you and Robitussin is a great cough medicine, and there's nothing you can do to change their minds. After all, it must be true; they saw it on TV!
Or if they didn't see it on TV, their doctors said it was true, so it must be. You ever try to convince someone that what their doctor said is entirely incorrect? It's very difficult, especially when just about every doctor says the same thing.
For example, every doctor tells you to avoid saturated fat and cholesterol like the plague... and every doctor is wrong. No matter how hard I try though, I'll never get those health nuts to go back to drinking whole milk and eating whole eggs instead of just egg whites.
The problem is that conventional wisdom is murky at best instead of scientifically tested truth. Since I know that the evidence is quite shaky, I can't in good conscious recommend what others would without batting an eye. Therefore, I've come to dislike the part of my job that involves counseling on OTC meds.
I'm my employer's worst nightmare in this regard. I actually prevent more OTC sales than I facilitate. That can't be good for business even though what I say is backed by the most current scientific evidence. That's why I'm so happy to be promoting flu shots. Flu shots are the rare occurrence in pharmacy where what's best for the patient is supported by science and good for our business.