What you need in your medicine cabinet

  • We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
  • If your medicine cabinet is stuffed full, chances are some of the medicines in there have either ‘gone off’, are never used or are too old.

    Stocking up might seem like a good idea at the time but you could actually be damaging your health and throwing your money down the drain! So what do you actually need and what do the different drugs do?

    First thing’s first, give your medicine cabinet a spring clean

    Check any ‘best before’ dates on boxes or bottles and chuck out anything that’s gone off or should have been used within so many days of opening it.

    Some pharmacies can safely get rid of certain drugs so check with them before you chuck it in the bin or flush it down the loo.

    Also give your cabinet a good clean to get rid of any germs that are lingering.

    Here’s a summary of the medicines you’ll need. 

    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 conditions

    – 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.

    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:

    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.

    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. Find out more about pregnancy medication.

    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 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.

    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.

    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
    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
    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
    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.

    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
    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, indigestion and heartburn.


    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

    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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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

    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.

    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
    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

    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

    Latest Stories