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Millions of people have high blood pressure. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably have a cold, allergies, or aches and pains at one time or another. Before you reach for help at the drug store, you need to know that some over-the-counter medicines may not be safe for you to take.

It’s good for everyone, whether you have high blood pressure or not, to know that over-the-counter doesn’t mean risk-free. You can learn how to stay safe by talking to your doctor and following a few simple rules.

What Is High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, typically refers to blood pressure that is 140/90 or above. Blood pressure of 180/120 is considered severe hypertension.

The first number is your systolic blood pressure, which is your blood pressure when your heart beats while pumping blood. The second number is your diastolic blood pressure, which is your blood pressure when the heart is at rest between beats.

For reference, normal blood pressure for adults is around 120/80, and this can increase when you’re excited, scared, or active, but should return to normal fairly quickly.

RELATED: Am I at Risk for High Blood Pressure?

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What Is the Difference Between OTC and Prescription Medicines

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are drugs you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. Most people have used OTC medicines to relieve a headache, soothe an upset stomach, or treat cold symptoms.

Prescription medicines are drugs that you can only buy with a prescription from your doctor. Many people use them to treat temporary health problems – like taking an antibiotic for strep throat – or to treat an ongoing health condition like high blood pressure.

If your doctor thinks your blood pressure is high enough to need medicine, you’ll get a prescription. There are no FDA-approved OTC medicines for high blood pressure.

OTC Medicines & High Blood Pressure

Some OTC medicines can raise blood pressure, or make the medicines you’re already taking less effective. Many OTC cold and allergy medicines include decongestants, which can help relieve a stuffy nose but can also raise blood pressure. Some OTC medicines also have high amounts of sodium, which can make your blood pressure go up.

Labels on OTC medicines list their ingredients, warnings, and other important facts that you need to know before you take them. Always read the labels and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you aren’t sure what something means.

Remember: taking OTC medicines without taking to your doctor can put you at risk if your blood pressure is high. Never stop taking medicine for high blood pressure unless your doctor tells you to.

What OTC Medications Should I Avoid with High Blood Pressure?

  • You should avoid any medication that increases your blood pressure or constricts your blood vessels. These are medications such as:
    NSAIDs, like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen
  • Decongestants (frequently found in cough or cold medicine)
  • Migraine medications
  • Weight loss drugs

RELATED: Grapefruit and Medication: How to Stay Safe

When Should I Talk to My Doctor?

If you are taking high blood pressure medication and need relief from common health problems, you should always talk to your doctor first, and keep these tips in mind:

  • Tell your doctor about all of the medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements you take. This can help your doctor figure out what is safe for you.
  • If your doctor says you can take OTC medicine, take it exactly as you are told. Taking more than the recommended dose can be very dangerous.
  • Remember that vitamins, herbs, and supplements can also interact with the medicines you take. Just because something is labeled “natural” does not mean it is safe for you.
  • Do not start taking something new without talking to your doctor.
  • Never stop taking your blood pressure medicine without talking to your doctor.

Knowing your blood pressure numbers and how to manage high blood pressure is an important part of a healthy life. Visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484) to learn more.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.