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Study shows knowledge gap in safe use of over-the-counter pain medications

New research from the University of Wollongong (UOW) has exposed a knowledge gap between consumers and the safe use of over-the-counter (OTC) products containing ibuprofen.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, are among the most common medications used to treat acute pain associated with a variety conditions, such as headache, muscle injury, dental pain, sore throat and dysmenorrhea. They are also used to treat chronic pain or inflammation associated with long-term conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Previous studies have found that since ibuprofen became a ‘general sales’ item, sales had increased, but so too had the number of patients inappropriately using the product.

Conducted across a number of NSW pharmacies, the UOW research investigated consumer knowledge about commonly purchased OTC products containing ibuprofen, specifically Nurofen and Nurofen Plus. The research showed that the majority of consumers could correctly identify ibuprofen as an active ingredient in these OTC products and knew the correct intervals between doses. However, almost a third couldn’t correctly identify the safe maximum daily dose, were unaware of potential contraindications and fewer than half of those surveyed recognised potential side effects associated with taking these drug products.

Associate Professor Judy Mullan from UOW’s School of Medicine said the lack of knowledge of the side affects of ibuprofen was particularly concerning.

“Many consumers believed that because these products are readily available over-the-counter in pharmacies and several retail outlets that they don’t have any side affects,” she said.

“Our concern is that people take them without being mindful of the fact that they can cause kidney failure and gastrointestinal harm if not taken appropriately.

“This, coupled with the lack of knowledge about recommended maximum dosages and potential contraindications, is a major public health issue and a real cause for concern.”

The study put forward a number of recommendations to increase consumer knowledge of over-the-counter NSAIDS, including better targeting for consumers who are poorly educated, increasing the number of information sources that explain the safe and effective use of the products, a possible redesign for ibuprofen packaging for people with poor functional health literacy, and increasing the role all healthcare practitioners play in educating consumers about the potential harm associated with taking these products.

“A combination of strategies to improve the knowledge gap would help to reinforce public awareness of the possible adverse effects associated with taking these products inappropriately,” Associate Professor Mullan said.

The study was jointly funded through the UOW Graduate School of Medicine and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI).