Home » Self-Medication? Know the risks, benefits and safety tips

Self-Medication? Know the risks, benefits and safety tips


It’s 7pm and you are enjoying your supper, a nice bowl of goat meat pepper soup. As bite down on your piece of meat, the foodgasm is immediately cut short by a sharp pain in your tooth. It hurts so bad. Unfortunately, it is raining outside, you do not have a car plus you are too tired from the day’s work to wait on a line to meet a doctor.

But wait!

You remember you have some painkillers at home and figure that should do the trick. You pop a pill, feel better, sleep like a baby and get up ready for another day of work. Self-medication saved the day (or more like night!).

“Self-medication involves the use of medicinal products (that includes herbal remedies) by the consumer to treat self-diagnosed disorders or symptoms…”

World Health Organization

Self-medication is a common practice in most homes and especially more common in mothers towards their children. I mean healthcare is becoming so expensive but that is not the only reason why people self-medicate.

  • Healthcare is becoming so expensive (wait, I said that already)
  • Lack of or very far health services
  • The time factor, from not having the time to go to the hospital to the long waiting hours to see a doctor
  • Self-confidence (thinking you know what is wrong and how to fix it) and taking an active role in self-care 
  • Lack of trust of health care service
  • Advised by a concerned and trusted friend, neighbor or family member

Lately, there has been a rise in self-medication practices and this is due to many factors.

  • Higher health literacy levels
  • Technology and the wide ocean of resources online
  • Availability of drugs (I mean, it’s crazy, in Cameroon, you can walk practically get any drug without a prescription!)
  • Advertisements
  • Saves money (transportation, consultation etc.)
  • Saves time
  • Reduced absenteeism from work
  • Reduces the burden on healthcare workers (not that your headache doesn’t matter but, you get the point)

Well, well, well…all is well that ends well right? Until it doesn’t! Self-medication while having its benefits is not a completely safe practice. It comes with its bag of dangers! Just the other day, while doing hospital rounds, met with a mom who was giving her 4 months old baby girl Litacold syrup because the child had common cold symptoms (running nose, fever etc.). This medication is not appropriate for babies. She was advised to give her baby by a concerned neighbor who used the medication and it ‘worked’.

  • You may make an incorrect self-diagnosis
  • You may choose the wrong kind of medicines
  • You may not know how to use the medicines in the right way
  • The temporary fix may make you delay seeking appropriate treatment and excessively prolong use of drugs (remember the toothache? How long will you continue with the painkillers before visiting the dentist?)
  • You increase your risk of dependence and even drug abuse
  • Sometimes, self-medication could even upset diagnosis when you eventually go to the hospital (For example, reducing a fever and going to the hospital without probably noting some key elements about the fever like its timing, the temperature etc.…also some tests are best performed when the symptom is in its active stage)
  • Drugs might interfere with other medicines you are taking
  • I almost forgot the big one: Antibiotic resistance!

What’s the way forward then? Do we have to consult for every symptom we feel or any minor ailment? No, not exactly. It is case by case and knowing when to self-medicate and when to seek professional help is key.

Self-medication is appropriate for self-limiting conditions and minor ailments only. For all major and chronic conditions, consult a doctor immediately.

  • Self-limiting conditions are those that do not require any medical advice or treatment. This is mostly because they clear up by themselves e.g. cough, cold , sore throat, just to name a few
  • Minor ailments are non-complicated medical conditions which can be self-diagnosed and managed, with or without the support of a healthcare professional e.g. constipation, diarrhea, topical fungal infections, headaches, heartburn, fevers etc.

In both cases, medicines can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription from a pharmacy (also known as OTC drugs- Over The Counter). This implies you shouldn’t be self-medicating on prescription drugs even if you can easily access them (e.g. in Cameroon!)

  • Your symptoms do not go away after a week or 2. Seek professional help
  • Sensitive groups such as babies, pregnant women and elderly persons
  • Chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension need proper follow up and sometimes drug interactions can negatively affect the treatment plan.
  • Bacterial infections! Remember, antibiotic resistance is a real thing.

If you must self-medicate, here are some tips for a safer practice

  • Carefully observe your body and know when to self-medicate and when to seek professional help (see above). Also take note of your symptoms for if you eventually have to see a doctor
  • Be knowledgeable, be health literate. Know how to select the health information you receive from different sources (google, friends, adverts etc.)
  • Know your medicines (name, dose, how to take, store, interactions etc). You can easily find this information on the drug label.
  • Make sure your medicine is safe i.e. bought from the right sources (link), well kept (link), not expired or damaged
  • Take medication as directed. Avoid the temptation to use more than prescribed thinking you would feel better.
  • Take note of the medicines you took and update your medication list
  • Why not make a quick phone call or text to your healthcare provider before taking the medication

So there you go, I hope you found this article helpful. If you did, please like, share, comment. If you didn’t please ask question in the comment section and we will get right back at you. While you down here, please check out our other interesting blog posts.

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