What medicines do I need?

If your medicine cabinet is stuffed full, chances are some of the medicines in there have 'gone off', are never used or are a bit too old. Find out how to spring clean your medicine cabinet and what medicines you really need

Here's a summary of the medicines you'll need. Click on the symptom to find out more about the different types of medicine available. Print this page.

For coughs and colds

- Cough medicine - Decongestant - Throat lozenges - Tissues

For pain, headaches and fever

- All-in-one tablets - Paracetamol - Ibuprofen tablets/gel - Aspirin - Drug-free alternatives

For allergies and insect bites/stings

- Antihistamine tablets, spray or cream - Hydrocortisone cream - Calamine lotion

For digestive problems

- Heartburn relief - Diarrhoea tablets - Stomach settling milk - Laxatives

For other skin problems

- Anti-fungal creams - Thrush cream/yeast medicine

For cuts, grazes, burns and small wounds

- Antiseptic cream/spray - Plasters


- Thermometer - Tweezers - Small magnifying glass - Medical tape

Cough medicine

The kind of cough you have will influence the kind of cough medicine you need.

A dry cough doesn't produce any phlegm and usually hurts the back of your throat. For dry coughs you'll need a suppressant. This works by stopping, or suppressing, your body's urge to cough.

Chesty coughs produce phlegm and the pain from coughing is usually in your chest. For this type of cough you'll need an expectorant, which works by making your body bring up the phlegm so you can get rid of it.

Decongestant A decongestant clears a blocked nose and stuffy head. Some cough medicines contain it, but you can get it in nasal sprays and rub-on creams as well.

For both cough medicines and decongestants, drowsy and non-drowsy tablets are available. Check the label if you're unsure.

Throat lozenges (sweets) Some throat sweets can help soothe a sore throat and stop a runny nose, like Lockets and Halls.

Others, like Strepsils, contain antiseptic and anaesthetic to cure sore throats, but also numb the pain.

Despite being called sweets, they're not, so don't take more than the daily amount. 

All-in-one tablets If you're struck down with a cold or the flu you can get tablets which tackle most of the symptoms, fevers and body aches in one go. These also sometimes contain caffeine to boost your energy.

For more specific pain relief:

Paracetamol This is best for mild or moderate pain relief, especially from headaches, toothache and period pains. Paracetamol works because it stops the pain signals getting to the brain. A benefit of paracetamol is that it can be taken on an empty stomach, unlike ibuprofen.

Ibuprofen This can be used as pain relief as well as for fevers and cold symptoms, but ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory drug (paracetamol isn't), and so it's better for dealing with swelling, redness and pain caused by an injury.

You can get ibuprofen in tablets, or in a cream, gel or spray.

It's okay for you to take paracetamol and ibuprofen together as long as you're over 16. Children should never be given them together and pregnant women shouldn't take ibuprofen. 

Aspirin like ibuprofen, aspirin is both a pain killer and an anti-inflammatory. It can also be used to stop blood clots and some studies have said it can reduce the risk of heart attacks. Soluble aspirin is good for a sore throat or for people who can't take tablets.

Aspirin has been known to cause problems with the stomach lining, so if you've had problems with your stomach in the past speak to a pharmacist before taking aspirin. Aspirin should not be given to anyone under 16.

It is okay for you to take paracetamol and aspirin together. Children should never be given them together.

Aspirin and ibuprofen are very similar drugs and should NOT be taken together.

Codeine Codeine can be used for more moderate or severe pain. It can be taken with paracetamol or with aspirin by anyone over 16 and is particularly good for migraines. The combination of codeine with paracetamol is also known as Solpadeine or Co-codamol.

Drug-free alternatives For muscle aches and pains, including period pains, there are heat patches you can buy, or you can just use a hot water bottle. You can also buy a TENS machine from some pharmacies. Lloyds pharmacy sell them from £14.99.

TENS machines are usually used during labour and send small electrical impulses through the skin to stop pain.

There are natural remedies for headaches too, including 4Head, which contains levomenthol and is applied straight to the forehead. 

Antihistamine tablets When you get an allergic reaction to something your body produces a chemical called histamine. That's why you need an antihistamine to get rid of it. The kind of allergy you have will influence what type of antihistamine you need and it's a good idea to check with a pharmacist.

If you're pregnant, look for antihistamines containing chlorphenamine as they are the safest, although they can make you drowsy so speak to a doctor first. Find out more about pregnancy and medication

Most allergy medicines will tackle hayfever, pet allergies, insect bites, stings and skin allergies. You can get one-a-day tablets and they can either be drowsy or non-drowsy. Many tablets will also contain a decongestant to relieve the symptoms of hayfever or pet allergies.

If you know you're going to suffer with an allergy, for example if you get hayfever every year or you know you're allergic to a friend's cat, then you can take the tablets beforehand to try and prevent you having a reaction.

Syrups You can also get allergy relief syrups. These work in the same way and are good for kids or people who don't like taking tablets.

Eye drops Some eye drops will just re-hydrate your eyes and others will have medication in them to get rid of redness, swelling or itching. Like the tablets, you can start using drops before the symptoms start and most can be used every day.

Nasal sprays These act in the same way as the tablets and eye drops and the spray is good if you need a quick relief from the symptoms.

Hydrocortisone cream This cream reduces inflammation caused by insect bites or stings and it can also help with itching and redness. It is also good for eczema.

Heartburn and indigestion relief Heartburn is a burning sensation caused by acid from your stomach in your throat and chest. It happens if you eat too quickly or have spicy food. Because it feels like burning you'll need a tablet or liquid which cools and soothes it.

Rennies, Setlers Tums and Gaviscon can all help.

Diarrhoea tablets The best way to treat diarrhoea is to drink lots of fluids but if you want to stop, or even reduce the amount of times you have to go to the loo you can get tablets.

Look for medicines which contain loperamide hydrochloride, such as Immodium or Diareze.

If you do get dehydrated you can take Dioralyte sachets. They dissolve in water and contain sugars and salts to replace the fluids you lose when you've got diarrhoea.

Stomach settling milk When you're feeling sick, milk can help settle your stomach because it neutralises the acid and lines it. You can also get liquids or tablets such as Pepto-bismol which works against sickness and diarrhoea, nausea, indegestion and heartburn.

Laxatives Fibre tablets or drinks can help relieve constipation. Milk of Magnesia can settle your stomach and it works as a gentle laxative. A natural way is to eat more fibre, such as wholemeal bread and brown rice as well as fruit and veg and drink more water. There are also laxative tablets like Senokot.

Anti-fungal creams

If you've got athlete's foot you can reduce the symptoms by using an anti-fungal cream, spray or powder. Anti-fungal drugs are also found in some dandruff shampoos. They can't always cure the problem but they can stop your skin from flaking as much, getting infected or spreading. - Try Lotil cream, a cheap anti-fungal and anti-bacterial cream that helps soothe dry, chapped and sore skin

There are natural anti-fungal remedies such as coconut oil and tea tree oil or try eating foods which are high in zinc and selenium.

Thrush cream/yeast medicine

Thrush is a yeast infection, like athlete's foot, but can be found in your mouth or around your vagina. Because these areas are more sensitive you'll need to buy a more specific anti-fungal cream.

You can also get pessaries (tablets you insert inside your vagina) or tablet and cream combinations. Examples are Vagisil and Canesten. But garlic and natural yogurt can help as natural alternatives.

Calamine lotion

This anti-inflammatory cream cools the skin, so it's good if you have a rash, eczema or your skin is red or inflammed. It can be used to help with sunburn and prickly heat, chickenpox and insect bites and because it contains a mild antiseptic it can prevent infections caused when you scratch acne or blisters.

A natural alternative is aloe vera, which can also help ease the pain of genital warts and ease the discomfort of irritable bowel syndrome.

Antiseptic cream/spray There are loads out there to choose from. You can get creams, liquids, gels and sprays depending on what you need it for.

The sprays are good for anything that's contagious so you don't have to touch it. They're also good for covering large areas quickly. The sprays (and the gel) can form a germ-proof layer.

Some antiseptic liquids are stronger than gels and creams and, TCP, for example, can be used to gargle with (but not swallow) for sore throats.

The gels and creams tend to be less harsh than the liquids and sprays so are better for children or sensitive skin caused by acne.

Plasters Putting a plaster on a cut sounds easy enough, but there are loads of plasters to choose from. You'll probably know that fabric ones stick better and waterproof ones keep the wound dry.

If you need to stop bleeding from cuts and grazes you'll need something called a haemostatic plaster. They have thicker pads to absorb blood and contain mild chemicals which help the blood to clot.

If you want to try and heal a wound quicker you can get healing plasters. The special substances in these keep the wound moist which means it should get better more quickly.

Hypoallergenic plasters are good if you're allergic to the glue or have sensitive skin, as they reduce the risk of a reaction.

If you burn or scald yourself you'll need a special burn plaster. They have extra padding in them to protect the burn as well as gel which keeps it cool. They also cover a larger area and have a much more gentle sticky adhesive so it's not as bad when the plaster gets taken off.

Blister plasters are, in effect, smaller versions of the burn plaster. You can wear them to either protect a blister, or prevent one from shoes that rub.

If you've hurt your knee, elbow or anywhere else where it's awkward to put a plaster you can now get spray-on ones. They last about two days and form a transparent film which stops water, dirt and bacteria getting in. Make sure the cut is clean before though, so you're not trapping bacteria underneath it.

Fingers can also be awkward places to put a plaster so you can get finger shaped ones, which are longer and stick better.

Thermometer You can get electronic ones and glass ones. The electronic ones can be used in the mouth or in the bottom (make sure you sterilise it in between, or buy two and label them clearly) and the glass ones can also be used under the armpit.

Rectal temperature checks, i.e the bum, are usually suggested for younger children.

Glass ones should really be left in place for 10 minutes under the armpit and three minutes in the mouth or the bum.

To measure your temperature orally put the thermometer under your tongue - as far back as possible - and close your mouth.

To measure it rectally use lubricant and take care putting it in and taking it out. It doesn't need to be inserted fully, only about 1/2 inch to 1 inch.

Rectal temperatures will read about 1 degree higher than oral ones if they were taken at the same time. Armpit temperatures will be a bit lower.

A temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) and above is classed as being a 'significant fever' and you should check it two to three hours later. If it doesn't get better contact a doctor.

Tweezers and small magnifying glass These are good for removing splinters. The magnifying glass can help you grab hold of the splinter with the tweezers so it doesn't break in your skin. Get a magnifying glass which has a stand so you can rest it on the table, leaving both hands free to remove the splinter, or ingrowing hair.

Medical tape This is good for strapping fingers together or sticking a dressing onto a wound. It's white because it has zinc oxide in it to prevent infections and it also has a hypoallergenic adhesive.

Where next?

- More information about health conditions - Kid's health - Give your body its very own MOT with our health check - Do you really need to see the doctor? Find out who else could help - Old wives' tales? Fact or fiction - Foods that are better than medicine - When do I need antibiotics? - Ten symptoms you should never ignore - How well are you? Take our immune system quiz to find out - Top tips for boosting your immune system


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