Responsible self-medication: perceived risks and benefits of over-the-counter analgesic use


Mrs Hazel Palmer, Scius Solutions Pty Ltd, Suite 9, Level 1, 357 Military Road, Mosman, NSW 2088, Australia. E-mail:


Objectives  This study examines awareness of the potential risks associated with over-the-counter (OTC) use of paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) among Australian consumers to better understand patterns of usage of these products.

Methods  We employed two self-reported cross-sectional surveys (conducted in 2001 and 2009) using computer-aided telephone interviewing. Both survey samples were weighted to match national population proportions; data were collected for 3702 respondents (study 1, 2001, n = 1901; study 2, 2009, n = 1801). The inclusion criteria were age over 18 years and willingness to participate in the survey.

Key findings  Self-reported regular use (once or more per month) of OTC analgesics declined between 2001 (67.5%) and 2009 (55.0%; P < 0.05). In 2009 42.0% of regular OTC analgesic users were purchasing NSAIDs outside the pharmacy setting (compared with none in 2001). Stated awareness of potential risks has increased slightly among regular paracetamol users (from 49.0% in 2001 to 52.0% in 2009) and regular NSAID users (from 25.0% in 2001 to 41.0% in 2009). Regular OTC analgesic users were considered to be using the product appropriately if there were no contraindications, warnings, precautions or potential drug interactions to the analgesic that they had used. In 2001, significantly more people were using paracetamol appropriately than were using NSAIDs appropriately (98.3 compared with 79.3%; P < 0.05). Corresponding figures for 2009 were 96.4 and 69.1% (P < 0.5).

Conclusions  Increasing consumer awareness of the need to consider potential risks prior to taking OTC analgesics is a positive sign. However, this has not translated to an increase in appropriate use of OTC NSAIDs; since ibuprofen has become available outside the pharmacy setting in Australia fewer people are using NSAIDs appropriately according to the label. The quality use of medicines, in particular OTC NSAIDs, is becoming increasingly reliant on product labelling and the ability of consumers to understand and self-assess risk.