Medical Self-Care: Facts About Medicine, Part II

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Dr. Tom Ferguson believed people who knew essential facts about medicine or drugs would do better at self-administering their medical care.

In 1976, Tom Ferguson–then a fourth-year medical student at Yale–launched a magazine called Medical Self-Care, which he hoped would serve as “a Whole Earth Catalog of the best medical books, tools, and resources.”

Tom spoke of his plans for the publication and of his conviction that self-care could raise the general level of health in this country and lower our inflated levels of medical spending in a MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview, and left no doubt that he would work toward making those “dreams”come true.Part II of this interview appears here; for Part I, see Medical Self-Care: Facts About Medicine, Part I.

Well, Tom Ferguson is Doctor Ferguson now, and the medical self-care “movement” — as well as Tom’s magazine — has flourished. People are beginning to assume more responsibility for their own well-being and are eager for information that will help them take better care of their bodies.

Facts About Medicine: What You Should Know About Drugs, Part II

This issue’s column contains the conclusion of an interview I had with Joe Graedon, author of ThePeople’s Pharmacy (which is the book for the general reader who wants to know more about prescription and over-the-counter drugs.)

FERGUSON: Joe, what drugs would you recommend that people keep at home?

GRAEDON: Before I answer that question, Tom, let me remind folks that–as I said in the first part of this interview–no one should focus treatment efforts exclusively on the use of drugs. In fact, whenever possible, the best remedy for an ailment is to leave the condition alone and let your body heal itself… a little bit of patience and chicken soup often work just as well as–and have a darn sight less risky side effects than–any expensive pharmaceutical preparations. And naturally, by far the best course of action for a person to take is to prevent physical troubles… by following a program of proper health care.

Still, there will be times when you’ve got an ailment that’s not serious enough to warrant rushing off to a doctor but is more annoying than your patience can endure… or, perhaps, problems may occur when you’re traveling (or living out in the back country), and obtaining medical assistance won’t be easy. In other words, most folks will, sooner or later, find themselves in situations where a drug can serve a useful role. And when that’s the case, they’ll be better off using some basic and effective remedies rather than trying many of the more heavily advertised concoctions.

FERGUSON: What medication do you recommend as an individual’s principal home treatment drug?

GRAEDON: Codeine. It can be used to relieve quite a few common and distressing medical problems. In fact, if I could take only one drug with me to a desert island, I’d carry a few “emergency” tablets of codeine.

Now I realize that this substance has something of a bad reputation, but there’s a surprising reason for its unpopularity: Pharmaceutical companies have made millions of dollars by playing on the public’s fears about abuse of codeine and claiming that more costly preparations are safer than this effective and inexpensive remedy. And, although it’s certainly true that codeine can be abused, the drug is almost never habit-forming when used as an occasional remedy in small (15 or 30 milligram) doses.

And let me tell you about codeine’s virtues. First off, it’s an excellent pain reliever that’s good for toothaches, headaches, or conditions such as bad menstrual cramps that aspirin can’t handle. In addition, codeine combines with aspirin (in what I’d call an additive effect) in such a way that the two together are especially powerful. Let me add one word of caution here: Never use codeine–or any other painkiller–for a pain of unknown origin. The effects of the medicine might make it harder for a doctor to diagnose the real cause of your trouble.

Codeine can also be used to control diarrhea, and is a fine treatment for dealing with a really nasty and painful cough.

Most states do not allow codeine to be sold over the counter, so you’ll have to get a doctor to prescribe it for you. You won’t require much of the medication, though… my family goes through maybe one or two 30-milligram tablets in a year. We administer one whole pill on the rare occasions when someone is in serious pain, and use half a tablet to handle a bad cough or severe case of diarrhea. ( If for some reason your physician won’t prescribe codeine for you, encourage the doctor to help you obtain some Lomotil to handle “traveler’s diarrhea” and codeine-supplemented Capital or Tylenol for pain relief.)

FERGUSON: What else might belong in a home medicine chest?

GRAEDON: I always keep some Tinactin handy… it’s one of the best antifungal agents for treating athlete’s foot or jock itch, and can be obtained over the counter. (More serious cases of athlete’s foot can be cleared up–as long as the patient’s feet are dry and have no open sores–with a solution of 20 or 30% aluminum chloride.)

Dramamine is effective for dealing with most cases of motion sickness, but you should be forewarned that the drug is an antihistamine… and may cause sleepiness.

A little baking soda–dissolved in half a glass of warm water–is a good remedy for occasional indigestion (but, because of its high sodium content, the powder should not be used by people with high blood pressure). Chronic indigestion, on the other hand, is better treated with any product containing aluminum hydroxide and magnesium… just ask your pharmacist for the least expensive medicine that contains these two ingredients.

Aspirin is, of course, the mainstay of most home medicine kits. Get the plainest, least expensive variety of this drug that you can find.

Products–like Metamucil or Serutan–that contain psyllium or methyl cellulose increase the bulk of your stool and can relieve an occasional case of constipation. And Pepto-Bismol should effectively combat mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea, since there’s good evidence that one of its ingredients–bismuth subsalicylate–really works.

People with bee sting allergies should definitely learn how to administer syringe doses of adrenalin. Some folks don’t think they could ever perform an injection… but believe me, if you’re ever facing an emergency–and remember, more people die from allergic reactions to insect stings each year than from snake bites–you’ll find yourself quite able to give the needle. There’s an excellent Emergency Insect Sting Treatment kit available from Hollister-Stier Laboratories. You will, however, need a doctor’s prescription to order the Stier kit.

Also, if you live in snake country, you should keep a good snakebite kit–available by prescription at most pharmacies–in your house.

FERGUSON: Are there any other useful items for the home medicine cabinet?

GRAEDON: Well, a lot of home remedies–like applying a paste of meat tenderizer and water to insect stings… putting ice on minor burns, sprains, and bruises… and taking thiamine (vitamin B1) to keep away fleas and mosquitoes–work just fine, so folks should use them. And there’s one other essential item that should be in every home medicine chest.

FERGUSON: What’s that?

GRAEDON: A strong dose of common sense.

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