Recently, I had a bad cold, complete with gallons of phlegm, sinus headaches, a hearty cough, and a week-long-plus sore throat. And as usual, I didn't take any "medicine" for it.
No DayQuil, cough suppressant, ibuprofen, or anything to make me feel better. I wasn't better, I was sick. It was unpleasant, for sure, but that's the way I deal with the regular physical illnesses, aches and pains of life — I rest and wait to recover. Occasional menstrual cramps, headaches and muscle pain all get the same treatment: massage, warm compresses, fluids and rest.
I was encouraged by several people to take something for my discomfort, and noticed plenty of advertisements (during some marathon TV-watching sessions) for pills for every possible physical sensation I was going through in my time of illness. And we've all noticed the aisles-long shelves of boxes at the drugstore for every conceivable ailment. But I've long had an aversion to pills, especially painkillers. It worries me to cover up pain, which is how our bodies communicate that something's wrong; I like to listen closely, and feel like acetaminophen and other painkillers cut me off.
Because when you are feeling uncomfortable pain, your body is sending you a message. "Pain is a symptom, not a problem. Fix the actual problem and the symptom will go away. Treat the symptom and the problem persists," explains Jeffrey Davis, a personal fitness trainer and the founder of Eco-Snobbery Sucks.
But there's more to worry about than physical disconnection. A recent post on The Atlantic's Health channel, called The Problem with Painkillers got my attention. "Some studies suggest that taking these medications over the long run — even in low doses — may be associated with more health risks than benefits. And some can be serious." I've long known that acetaminophen is tough on the liver (that's why drinking is not advised when you're taking it), but a Scottish study shows that among people treated for liver toxicity at a hospital there, a significant portion had what they termed a "staggered overdose" — frequent, low-level doses of acetaminophen for everyday issues like soreness or headaches, that eventually harmed their livers. The risk of liver damage is enough that the FDA urged pill-sellers to reduce capsule doses down to 325 milligrams and to print a warning on their packaging about the drug's potential liver damage.
Ibuprofen isn't much better; it is linked with a higher rate of miscarriage in women, an up to 29 percent higher risk of stroke, and and increase in the chance of bleeding ulcers, heart attack and sudden death. It can also interfere with antidepressants.
Of course painkillers can be useful in occasional circumstances; that's what they're there for. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who knows people who regularly pop pain pills, which are seen as harmless by many. But like many OTC drugs, they're not, and should be used sparingly.