Ages & Stages: Pregnancy: Drugstore Do’s and Don’ts

Amanda Sheldon tried everything from nasal sprays to nightly use of a humidifier, but the first-time expectant mom couldn’t shake the stuffiness brought on by a bad chest cold. “I couldn’t sleep. I was barely functioning at work,” says the Pasadena, Calif., resident. Miserable and exhausted, Sheldon called her doctor who recommended an over-the-counter (OTC) medication. After two days, Sheldon felt better physically, but not emotionally. “I was concerned about the medicine’s effects on my baby even though my doctor reassured me it was safe.”

The odds of making it nine months without some sort of ailment sidetracking you — be it a cold, back pain or tummy troubles — are pretty slim. In fact, more than 80 percent of women self-medicate while pregnant. “Ideally, a mom-to-be will get better without medicine; but if the symptoms interfere with her ability to sleep, to function, to be alert enough to drive, then it’s in the best interest of the mother, and inherently her child, for her to take a doctor-approved medication,” says Michael C. Lu, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California in Los Angeles.

But not every woman checks with her doctor, as Sheldon did, before heading to the drugstore. “There’s a much more relaxed attitude these days about self-medicating while pregnant. That’s alarming because there’s not a lot of research on how OTC drugs affect pregnancy,” says D. Ashley Hill, M.D., associate director of obstetrics and gynecology at the Florida Hospital Family Practice Residency Program in Orlando.

You don’t have to tough it out if you’re under the weather. If nonmedicinal remedies don’t work, make sure to get your doctor’s OK before seeking relief. Here’s a look at some common pregnancy afflictions and recommended ways to treat them.


The baby factor: Hormonal changes can trigger headaches during the first trimester, while posture changes brought on by weight gain can set off tension headaches.

Try this first: Apply warm compresses around your sinus area, or try cold compresses on the back of your neck to relieve tension headaches. Massages — from your husband or a trained prenatal massage therapist — can help. Stay well hydrated, eat small meals throughout the day to prevent low blood sugar (a headache trigger), rest and exercise regularly (with your doctor’s OK).

At the drugstore: Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is the safest pain reliever during pregnancy.

Don’t take: Aspirin (it might cause premature labor, hemorrhaging and birth defects) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen (the painkiller in Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (found in Advil or Aleve).


The baby factor: Increased estrogen levels can swell your nasal membranes and cause you to produce more mucous (a condition called rhinitis of pregnancy). If you also have a sore throat, cough, sneezing or swollen glands, you probably have a cold.

Try this first: Relieve stuffiness with saline nasal sprays; ample water intake (at least 8 ounces per day); hot, steamy showers; and humidifiers. Throat lozenges and sprays also help.

At the drugstore: The decongestant pseudoephedrine (found in Sudafed) works best for congestion, but don’t take it during the first trimester due to a slight risk of birth defects. For coughs, try an expectorant containing dextromethorphan hydrobromide, such as Robitussin-DM.

Don’t take: Medications containing guafanesin (like Robitussin Cough & Congestion) during the first trimester due to birth defect risk, or products with codeine (Robitussin-AC) or alcohol (NyQuil).

Constipation and Hemorrhoids

The baby factor: Pregnancy hormones slow your intestinal tract. Straining brought on by constipation and increased blood flow and pressure within the rectal area veins contribute to hemorrhoids.

Try this first: To ease constipation, eat healthier (up your water and fiber intake) and exercise regularly. Warm baths, or alternately ice packs, can alleviate hemorrhoidal swelling.
At the drugstore: Bulk-forming laxatives, such as Metamucil, can get your bowels working regularly. If they don’t, consider a stool-softening laxative like Ex-Lax. When treating hemorrhoids, choose products that contain glycerin or witch hazel (try Tucks or Preparation H Cooling Gel).

Don’t take: Too many antacids (they can cause constipation), or use stimulant or lubricant laxatives like castor and mineral oils (they can trigger labor).


The baby factor: Pregnancy hormones relax the sphincter valve separating the esophagus from the stomach, causing gastric acids to seep back up. Your growing baby also crowds your abdominal cavity, pushing stomach acids back into your esophagus.

Try this first: Eat smaller meals; avoid greasy, spicy or high-acidic foods; and don’t eat within two hours of bedtime. Sleeping on an incline (elevate your bed or use a wedge-shaped pillow) also helps.

At the drugstore: Take an antacid containing magnesium (Maalox) or calcium carbonate (Tums) with each meal. If symptoms persist, histamine H2-receptor blockers (like Tagamet or Zantac) are an option.

Don’t take: H2-blockers during the first trimester or medications like Alka-Seltzer that contain aspirin or lots of sodium.

Jeanette Moninger is a freelance writer specializing in family issues in Greenwood, Ind.