Drugs and Supplements

Are over-the-counter cold medications safe?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm in my 60s. Whenever I have a cold, I reach for whichever medication treats the most symptoms. My wife says that's not safe, even if the medication is available over the counter. Is she right?

DEAR READER: Your wife is correct. Clearly, you should listen to her more often. Painkillers, decongestants, antihistamines and combination remedies -- even those available over the counter -- can sometimes cause health problems. They can interact with other drugs and can interfere with existing conditions. When choosing a cold medication, read the list of active ingredients.

How can I prevent addiction to my prescription painkillers?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My doctor has prescribed prescription painkillers -- opioids -- for my severe back pain. They relieve my pain, but how can I reduce my risk of becoming hooked?

DEAR READER: Simply being aware of the risk of addiction is a good first step in ensuring that you do not become addicted to prescription painkillers. I'll explain a little bit about painkillers. Then I'll describe some steps you can take to prevent addiction.

Do babies need to take a vitamin and mineral supplement?

DEAR DOCTOR K: The other day I saw a vitamin and mineral supplement for infants. Should I be giving this to my baby?

DEAR READER: Most babies who regularly breast-feed or take commercial infant formula get all the vitamins and minerals they need. Sometimes, however, your doctor may prescribe certain vitamin and mineral supplements. Do not give your baby any supplements unless your doctor recommends them.

Can depression increase my craving for sweets?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I am a 50-year-old woman with a history of depression. I recently developed an uncontrollable craving for sweets, which has increased my weight. Is it my depression or my medicine?

DEAR READER: You are right to wonder about the cause of your craving. It could be triggered by your depression or by the medicine you are taking to manage it. Or by something else entirely.

Could something other than depression be affecting my mood?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've been feeling down and moody lately, but nothing out of the ordinary has happened in my life. And I've always been a happy and positive person. Could something other than depression be affecting my mood?

DEAR READER: Depression is a common problem, and it often is not recognized by either the person suffering from it or that person's doctor. In fact, I think undiagnosed and untreated depression is one of the most important health problems in the developed nations. It generates enormous emotional suffering -- on the part of the depressed person, and that person's family, friends and co-workers. It also leads to lost productivity.

What health conditions can Botox treat?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I thought Botox was just a wrinkle remedy. But a friend told me she uses it to treat overactive bladder. Then someone else said he had a Botox injection for tennis elbow. What exactly is Botox? What else does it treat?

DEAR READER: It's true, Botox's applications are more than skin-deep. Botox is one brand of botulinum toxin A. This is a substance made by the bacteria responsible for botulism, a foodborne illness that causes paralysis and sometimes death. When purified and diluted, however, botulinum toxin is a safe and useful drug.

Does anxiety medication cause dementia?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm an older woman who sometimes takes Valium or Xanax for anxiety or if I'm unable to fall asleep. I recently heard that this type of medication may cause dementia. Should I stop using it?

DEAR READER: Valium and Xanax are benzodiazepines, a type of anti-anxiety drug. Like you, many people take these drugs to calm their nerves or help them sleep. And as you've heard, a recent study raised the possibility that benzodiazepine use may lead to dementia.

Will probiotics help my constipation?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I suffer from constipation. Do you think probiotics might help?

DEAR READER: Probiotics are living bacteria found in cultured foods, like yogurt, and in dietary supplements. They have long been touted for their ability to ease digestive woes. The strongest evidence for probiotics is in treating diarrhea caused by a viral infection or from taking antibiotics. Our bodies are home to a mix of "good" and "bad" bacteria.

Should I take a joint support supplement if I have osteoarthritis?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have osteoarthritis. It's improved some with physical therapy and weight loss, but not entirely. Should I give "joint support" supplements a try? Which ones?

DEAR READER: Your question reminds me of two of my patients. "John" was a man in his 50s whose pain from arthritis in his knees made it hard for him to play pickup basketball. Physical therapy and pain medicines helped, but not completely.