COVID-19 FAQ: What You Need to Know About Over-the-Counter Medicines & Dietary Supplements

Health officials across the country are responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus, called COVID-19. There are certain things you should know about the disease, how to protect yourself, as well as information on how to safely use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and dietary supplements during the pandemic.

Frequently Asked Questions

COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019, is the official name for the disease that is causing the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic. It is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans.

COVID-19 is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly cause mild illness, like the common cold. It is believed to spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation. Get the latest information at: www.coronavirus.gov

According to the CDC, older adults, people with severe underlying medical conditions – like heart or lung disease, or diabetes – and pregnant or recently pregnant people are at a higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.

People infected with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms – ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. People with these symptoms may have COVID-19:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Most children infected with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, some children can get severely ill from COVID-19. The CDC is investigating a rare but serious health condition associated with COVID-19 in children called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). Symptoms of MIS-C can include fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eyes, and feeling extra tired. If parents notice any of these symptoms, they should immediately call their pediatrician.

While most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home, CDC’s website features an interactive symptom checker to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care.

If you develop any of the emergency warning signs below for COVID-19, it is important to seek medical attention immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

This list is not inclusive, and you should consult your doctor or other healthcare professional for any symptoms that are severe or concerning.

Allergies

The major difference between allergies and COVID-19 is the presence of fever. A fever is a main symptom of COVID-19, but not a common symptom related to allergies. Another major distinction is that allergies will likely cause itchiness, while COVID-19 will not.

If you are experiencing symptoms, the best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to speak with your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you should be tested for the disease.

For more information on the different symptoms related to COVID-19 and allergies, check out this summary chart.

Cold or Flu

The symptoms of COVID-19 could be similar to a cold or flu, including fever, cough, and body aches or fatigue. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, some patients with COVID-19 have also experienced gastrointestinal problems or diarrhea.

If you are experiencing symptoms, the best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to speak with your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you should be tested for the disease and/or the flu or other infections.

For more information on the different symptoms related to COVID-19, a cold, or the flu, check out this summary chart

The COVID-19 virus spreads when an infected person, who may or may not show symptoms, breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, nose, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet away from the person infected with COVID-19 are most likely to get infected.

There are some things you can do to keep you and your loved ones from being exposed to the virus:

  1. Get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. CDC recommends that everyone 12 years of age and older gets a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. They have been evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials and meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization (EUA). If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except when required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. Find a vaccine near you.
  2. If you are not fully vaccinated, wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Masks are a critical step to help prevent people from getting and spreading COVID-19. A cloth mask offers some protection to you as well as protecting those around you. Wear a mask in public settings and when on mass transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere you will be around other people. Masks should NOT be worn by children under age 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing. If you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask except when required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
  3. If you are not fully vaccinated, avoid close contact. Limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. To practice social or physical distancing, stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces. It is also safest to avoid crowded places and gatherings where it may be difficult to stay at least 6 feet away from others who are not from your household. Wearing a mask is especially important when physical distancing is difficult. If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities without social distancing, except when required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
  4. Wash your hands – and often – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to not use certain hand sanitizers that have been recalled because they contain toxic and unacceptable ingredients, such as methanol. FDA maintains a list on its website of hand sanitizers to not use. Additionally, FDA is warning the public about alcohol-based hand sanitizers that are being packaged in containers that may appear as food or drinks – causing confusion that may lead people to accidentally ingest hand sanitizer and putting them at risk of serious injury or death.
  5. Avoid touching your face, and make sure to cough and sneeze into a tissue (throw into the trash) or into your arm/elbow, not your hands.
  6. Stay home if you’re sick, except to get medical care. Do not visit public areas. If possible, stay in a separate room that is away from other people and pets, and use a separate bathroom. You should wear a cloth face mask that covers your nose and mouth if you must be around other people or animals, including pets (even at home). You don’t need to wear the cloth face covering if you are alone. If you can’t put on a cloth face covering (because of trouble breathing, for example), cover your coughs and sneezes in some other way. Try to stay at least 6 feet away from other people.
  7. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, etc.

Additionally, it’s important to remember to ALWAYS keep your medicines up and away and out of sight and reach of young children. Doing so will help prevent children from accidentally getting a hold of medicines and ingesting them.

The same goes for hand sanitizer, as accidentally ingesting even a small amount can cause alcohol poisoning in children. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that during the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to Poison Control related to hand sanitizer have increased by 79%. Therefore, it is very important to store hand sanitizer out of sight and reach and monitor children when they are using hand sanitizer.

Check out this parent’s checklist to keep your kids safe during the coronavirus.

It’s important to maintain current drug therapies and ensure you have the appropriate treatments at home if you or your family members are sick. Remember most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.

For necessary prescription medications, we recommend contacting your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you can get a larger supply of your medicines so you do not have to visit the pharmacy as often. To limit in-person visits to the pharmacy, try to plan to order and pick up all your prescriptions at the same time. When possible, use drive-thru windows, curbside services (wait in your car until your prescription is ready), mail-order, or other delivery services.

It’s important to also have over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and medical supplies on-hand, including:

  • Fever-reducing medicines that contain the active ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Chest decongestant medicines that contain the active ingredient guaifenesin
  • Cough suppressant medicines that contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan or menthol
  • Antidiarrheal medicines that contain the active ingredient bismuth subsalicylate or loperamide
  • Cough drops
  • Thermometer
  • Face masks that cover the nose and mouth – such as home improvement masks, bandannas, or scarves

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) allows consumers enrolled in pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), certain Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to purchase most OTC medicines without a need for a prescription through their accounts – depending on what their employer’s plan documents allow. We recommend that you save your OTC medicine receipts and reach out to your HSA, FSA or HRA provider to learn more about eligibility. This provision is retroactive to January 1, 2020.

Be sure to keep all medicines up and away and out of sight and reach of your children, to help prevent accidental ingestions. Avoid an accident with these safe medicine storage tips.

While research supports the use of certain dietary supplements to maintain healthy immune system responses, there are no studies that demonstrate dietary supplements can prevent or treat COVID-19. Also, be aware that no dietary supplement may claim to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. Consumers should avoid products that suggest they do. All direction for preventing and/or treating COVID-19 should come from a qualified healthcare professional or public health authority. If you have questions about taking dietary supplements, please talk to your doctor.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, like those containing acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can be used to temporarily reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pains, including pain following a vaccination.

There is no research to date that specifically looks at whether OTC pain relievers can interfere with how well the COVID-19 vaccines work. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who experience discomfort after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination speak with their doctor about taking an OTC pain reliever.

CDC does not recommend taking OTC pain relievers before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine as an attempt to prevent soreness or muscle aches following the injection.

Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, are indicated and labeled under the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to temporarily reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pains. Acetaminophen is also indicated and labeled for this purpose.

Recent reports have questioned whether using NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, could lead to poorer outcomes when infected with COVID-19. However, FDA recently stated that it is “not aware of scientific evidence connecting the use of NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, to worsening COVID-19 symptoms,” and is investigating the issue.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also states that there is “no known evidence” that ibuprofen worsens symptoms of COVID-19, and “does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also currently not aware of scientific evidence establishing a link between NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen) and worsening of COVID‑19.

You should always read and follow the Drug Facts label on all OTC medicines to determine safe and appropriate use and speak with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any questions about which OTC medicine is right for you.

Millions of Americans deal with frequent heartburn which interferes with daily life and should not be ignored. When deciding how to self-treat frequent heartburn, OTC proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are an appropriate option. OTC PPIs are indicated and labeled for once-daily use, for a maximum of 14 days every four months.

Recent reports have questioned whether using PPIs increases a person’s risk for COVID-19, however, the few studies have only been observational, results have been mixed, and no causal relationship has been proven. OTC medicines, including PPIs, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and each OTC medicine has a clear Drug Facts label to help consumers understand what it is used for, to ensure proper dosing and duration of use, and to avoid drug interactions. Any severe or persistent symptoms should be immediately reported to a healthcare professional. Learn more about PPIs.