Guide Health: A non-prescription drug – Good for the bowel?

A change to non-prescription status can make it easier for people to self-treat minor ailments

Guide Health: A non-prescription drug – Good for the bowel?

Prescription drugs sometimes change their status so you no longer need a prescription to purchase them. Instead you can buy them over the counter for self treatment.

Drug companies apply to Health Canada for this type of change in scheduling. To get it, they must show that their drug product is safe to use according to the package instructions. In addition to safety, quality control and good manufacturing procedures must also be assured.

For a change from prescription to non-prescription status, a drug company must also outline their mechanisms for recalls, safety alerts and reporting adverse effects. After all, with non-prescription medications, an individual is responsible for these matters on their own, and they need to know who to contact.

Overall, however, the change to non-prescription status can make sense because it allows individuals to more easily self-treat for minor ailments.

One recent change has moved hyoscine or Buscopan from prescription to non-prescription status. Hyoscine is used to treat abdominal cramping which can often occur suddenly. Thus, if someone knows hyoscine works for them, then they can more easily and quickly access the remedy. 

Abdominal cramping is a relatively common complaint with about 13 per cent of Canadians saying they have experienced stomach pain and 15 per cent abdominal pain.

Hyoscine relaxes the smooth muscles in the gastrointestinal tract that cause the cramping, spasms and abdominal pain. Even though it is now available as a non-prescription item, it is still a good idea to have your symptoms assessed first to rule out critical causes before you decide to self-treat with hyoscine.

The idea is to ensure that using non-prescription hyoscine will not delay the appropriate identification and treatment of conditions like an inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome or even infections. 

Abdominal cramping is a symptom of a variety of problems including food allergies, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, gallstones and appendicitis. Also, digestive problems, most notably gastroparesis, are a complication of diabetes, which has indigestion and abdominal cramping as symptoms, and abdominal cramping is often accompanied by diarrhea, which can result in dehydration in the young and elderly.

While hyoscine might be able to reduce the cramping, other treatments including surgery, diet and drugs may be needed.

One tactic to help identify the reason for abdominal cramping is to keep a diary of symptoms and activities. The body location of the cramping symptoms, factors that aggravate and alleviate the symptoms, as well as diet and activities should be recorded. Other symptoms like fever, sweating, diarrhea, constipation, blood in the stool, stress and drugs taken should also be noted. The timing of the bowel cramps may also be a clue. If they occur after eating, for instance, it may point to a dietary cause, and a diary may help determine what foods should be avoided.

Sometimes abdominal cramps can be dealt with by non-drug approaches. A comfortable position to reduce the symptoms, or the application of heat with a heating pad, may help. To avoid cramping caused by contaminated foods, remember to wash hands well before preparing any foods and certainly after using the bathroom. Food safety is also critical, so, for example, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, use separate cutting boards for raw meats and other foods, and cook foods, including leftovers, thoroughly. 

The scheduling change of hyoscine to a non-prescription drug means that there is another option to self-treat abdominal cramping, but inappropriate use may mask another underlying condition that requires appropriate treatment. Use it wisely, and note that while it now is non-prescription it is stored behind the dispensary counter. You still need to ask the pharmacist for it. 

About the author


Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.



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