January 12, 2023/Health Conditions

What To Keep in Your Medicine Cabinet

Essential over-the-counter items for the illnesses and ailments of life

Mother and child checking cough syrup in their medicine cabinet.

It’s about 9 o’clock, and all of a sudden, someone in your house feels terrible. It could be a throbbing headache … or a nasty cough … or red-and-itchy eyes. Maybe it’s all three.


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Bottom line? You need to find relief, fast.

Keeping a well-stock medicine cabinet is key to addressing the headaches life throws at you and your family. So, what should absolutely, positively be in there? That is what we’re going to find out from family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD.

Medicine cabinet essentials

As you put together your medicine cabinet shopping list, Dr. Vyas says to consider six different categories. Let’s look at what falls into each one.

Pain relievers

Nobody likes feeling pain, right? Well, that explains why it’s a good idea to have nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen on hand to help relieve headaches, body aches or a fever.

You probably know NSAIDs as:

  • Aspirin (available as a single ingredient known by brand names such as Bayer® or St. Joseph® or combined with other ingredients known by brand names such as Anacin®, Ascriptin®, Bufferin® or Excedrin®).
  • Ibuprofen (known by brand names such as Motrin® and Advil®).
  • Naproxen sodium (known by the brand name Aleve®).

Acetaminophen – which is in Tylenol® and other medications – is a pain reliever and fever reducer but isn’t an NSAID. The reason? It doesn’t have anti-inflammatory properties. “But acetaminophen works well for pain and is especially helpful to take in place of NSAIDs for anyone with kidney issues,” notes Dr. Vyas.

Pediatric pain relievers typically use ibuprofen or acetaminophen, she adds. But aspirin isn’t recommended for children and has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a condition that targets the brain and liver.


Topical pain relievers

A tough workout or a long day of working in the yard can leave for feeling pretty creaky. When your muscles scream for help, consider using:

  • Medicated pain patches. These stick-on patches sold under brand names such as Thermacare®, Salonpas® and IcyHot® can soothe muscles that ache from doing a bit too much.
  • Medicated creams and gels.Your skin can absorb pain-relieving ingredients in medicated gels and lotions, including those with diclofenac (sold under brand names such as Voltaren® and Aspercreme®).

Respiratory medications

Few of us get through cold and flu season without picking up a case of the crud. These respiratory infections can give you a runny nose, sore throat, sinus pressure and a cough that won’t stop.

Fight back with medications such as:

  • Cough suppressants.Tired of all that hacking? A cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan calms your coughing reflex. “Cough suppressants are ideal to take at night so coughing doesn’t keep you awake,” notes Dr. Vyas.
  • Expectorants. This medicine works to loosen up mucus buildup, allowing you to better clear the gunk from your throat and lungs. But as that phlegm thins out, it may prompt you to cough more ­— so it’s best to take an expectorant during the day.
  • Cough drops or sprays. Either can help relieve a sore throat and keep coughing at a minimum.
  • Decongestants. Tired of that stuffed-up feeling in your nose? Decongestants such as Sudafed® decrease swelling to treat sinus congestion and pressure, making it easier to breathe. Two notes of caution, though: Decongestants can raise your blood pressure, so Dr. Vyas recommends staying away from them if you have a heart condition. The medicine also isn’t recommended if you have urinary conditions such as an enlarged prostate.
  • Honey. OK … so technically, this probably wouldn’t be in your medicine cabinet. But a spoonful of honey is a natural way to curb coughing and make a sore throat feel a bit better, says Dr. Vyas.

Allergy medications

Let’s face facts: There’s really no escaping allergens as you go through life. So, when allergy symptoms such as a runny nose, red eyes and general itchiness begin, it’s best to have a treatment option on hand.

Dr. Vyas recommends getting an antihistamine such as:

  • Cetirizine (better known as Zyrtec®).
  • Desloratadine (better known as Clarinex®).
  • Fexofenadine (better known as Allegra®.)
  • Loratadine (better known as Claritin®).

“Those are great to have around if you have seasonal allergies,” she continues. She also suggests the use of an antihistamine if you’re experiencing a runny nose, sneezing or itchy eyes that sometimes signal the start of a respiratory infection.

Gastrointestinal medications

Heartburn, a rumbly tummy and … well, let’s just say “uncomfortable” bathroom visits can turn any day pretty miserable. Here’s what may help if you’re dealing with:

  • Heartburn.There are two general approaches to tackling acid reflux, states Dy. Vyas. Some use calcium carbonate antacids like Tums®, Rolaids® and Maalox® to neutralize troublesome stomach acid. Others turn to H2 blockers (Pepcid® or Tagamet®) and proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec® or Nexium®) to decrease the amount of stomach acid.
  • Diarrhea.If you’re dealing with a case of the runs, try a medication with loperamide (such as Imodium®) to slow down your overactive bowels and firm things up.
  • Constipation.Feeling plugged up? Using a medicine with polyethylene glycol (such as MiraLAX®) can get you back on schedule. “A capful of this powder in your morning drink of choice can help get you going again,” notes Dr. Vyas.
  • General GI distress. A good catch-all for GI-related issues would be bismuth subsalicylate, sold under brand names such as Pepto-Bismol® and Kaeopectate®.

Skin treatment

Are your arms and legs a buffet for mosquitoes? Do you break out in a rash just from looking at poison ivy? If so, it’s a good idea to have some stop-the-itch products on hand to bring relief.


Dr. Vyas recommends stocking:

  • Hydrocortisone cream. This soothing solution — sold under names such as Cortaid® — eases swelling, redness and itching from irritated skin. “You can rub it on the affected areas and it’ll help for a little while,” she adds.
  • Diphenhydramine. This product (sold under names such as Benadryl®) does double duty as an anti-itch medication and antihistamine. It comes in cream or tablet form, too. “It can make you sleepy in pill form, though, so you want to be careful,” she warns.

Injury aids

Boo-boos happen. Here’s what you need when they do:

  • Adhesive bandages.Cuts and scrapes come with an active life. “It’s always a good idea to have a supply of bandages on hand,” notes Dr. Vyas. (Pro tip: Try to get a range of bandage sizes, too.)
  • Liquid bandage.Ever get a cut in a place where an adhesive bandage just won’t work that well? A better option in those cases may be liquid bandage. “It’s also something that holds up much better in water,” she says.
  • Alcohol wipes.Make sure you have a good disinfectant on hand to clean injuries before bandaging.

Check for expired medicine

Medicine comes with an expiration date — and that’s something that deserves your attention.

Out-of-date medication is less effective and maybe even risky because of chemical changes that can happen over time. Some older medications pose a bacteria risk, too. “If your medicine is expired, do not use it,” advises the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Vyas recommends doing a seasonal inventory every six months to make sure the medications in your cabinet are still good. (Expiration dates are typically printed on labels or stamped on bottles or cartons.)

After cleaning out your cabinet, it’s important to discard the old medicine safely. Then, next time life comes at you, you’ll be ready.

To hear more on this topic from Dr. Vyas, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “What Should Be In Your Medicine Cabinet.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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