10 Life Threatening Diseases Caused by Over the Counter Products

You’ve probably never given a second thought to going to your local pharmacy and picking up some cough drops or cold medicine over the counter, assuming it’s all safe. You’d probably never even imagine some of these products could cause serious, debilitating diseases that could potentially kill you. Unfortunately, some unlucky people have had to find out this fact the hard way.

10. Methemoglobinemia

teething gel

Many mothers have had to deal with their baby going through their teething period where the milk teeth sprout out from the baby’s gums. Some babies go through pain and discomfort during this period, and many over the counter gels are available to deal with this. A lot of these gels contain benzocaine, a topical pain reliever, effective in easing pain. This drug has, however, been connected to a life threatening disease called Methemoglobinemia.

Methemoglobinemia is a dangerous disorder causing higher levels of methemoglobin, a chemical variant of hemoglobin, which is the compound present in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. Methemoglobin has a lower capacity to bind to and transport oxygen throughout the body to the necessary organs. It’s present in the blood cells, but is kept at low concentrations by healthy bodily regulations. However, oxidizing compounds like benzocaine drastically increase methemoglobin concentrations in the blood. This condition can cause dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and loss of consciousness, but in many cases can lead to serious complications, like cyanosis (blue coloration of skin; mainly in newborns), heart disease, coma, and even death due to low oxygen levels in the blood. The FDA has thus advised that it not be used for children under two years of age.

9. Angiosarcoma

PVC bottles

Have you ever noticed that new plastic smell you get from a new backpack, or from that bottle of hand lotion or shampoo? That’s the smell of vinyl chloride, a fairly sweet residual smell from the polyvinylchloride (PVC) compound used to make a variety of plastics and textiles. It’s a widely used precursor in the manufacturing industry. However, in great enough concentrations, it is extremely dangerous. The human liver is particularly vulnerable to the toxin, as it can trigger a rare but malignant form of liver cancer called an angiosarcoma, which affects the lining of blood vessels. This cancer is usually detected at the advanced stages, where irreversible damage has been done to major organs, as most patients of the disease die within two years of detection.

This was the fate of several workers in Kentucky in the 1960s and 1970s who worked in a factory handling vinyl chloride and were directly exposed to dangerous concentrations. However, even as safety standards have improved, there are still concerns over the long term levels of exposure of the average person, given its abundance in plastic goods sold worldwide. However, the main concern is the leeching of vinyl chloride from waste plastic to the water supply, as it is highly soluble and can deliver potentially dangerous levels of contamination. The recommended highest levels of vinyl chloride sanctioned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency is two parts per billion.

8. Ovarian Cancer

shower to shower

In 2013, Deane Berg filed a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical conglomerate Johnson Johnson. She had been previously diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer in 2006 at age 49. The cause of her condition: she claimed to have gotten cancer from long term use of talcum powder in the Johnson Johnson brand Shower to Shower, which she would routinely apply to her vaginal area to keep it fresh. Her claims are not unique. In fact, she referred to medical journals, including the first study done in the 1980s, up to a journal by the International Journal of Cancer in 1999, which linked long term usage of talcum powder by women on the vaginal area to the development of ovarian cancer.

Added to that, according to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, these claims were brought to both the FDA and Johnson Johnson to request a requirement for warning labels on talc bottles, which was refused due to lack of evidence. Berg claimed that despite this abundance of evidence on the risks associated with talcum powder, Johnson Johnson failed to provide warnings. In a slightly confusing judgement, no damages were awarded to her. However, the judge did find that Johnson Johnson were negligent in providing sufficient warnings to the public on the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. Basically, Johnson Johnson were wrong, but they don’t have to pay for it.

7. Heart Disease


A study done by the U.S. National Library of Medicine in 2003 noted a significant link between prolonged usage of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and heart disease, noting an increased incidence of heart attacks among persons taking this medication. This was still at a time when the rate of heart disease cases were steadily increasing. The FDA has recently attested to this in their regular consumer report. Up to 2009, heart disease was the main causes of death among American men and women. Even after knowing this, you might wonder, “What does all that have to do with me?”

Well, what a lot of people don’t realize is that NSAIDs are more common than you’d think. NSAIDs are used to reduce the symptoms of fevers, pain, and inflammation from illnesses from the common cold to advanced cancers. It’s present in a host of over the counter medication, such as Advil, Ibuprofen, Diclofenac, Naproxen, and Aspirin, to name a few. So before you guzzle down all those tablets when you start to get the sniffles, don’t innocently assume you only get heart attacks from eating too much fatty foods and at least heed the evidence out there.

6. Meningitis

cotton swabs

You ever get that itchy feeling in your ears, or maybe some earwax buildup, so you go pick up some cotton swabs from the pharmacy to deal with it? You’d probably never consider that this could set you up for a severe case of meningitis, right? Well that’s exactly the fatal lesson Daniel St. Pierre of Montreal had to find out. While using cotton swabs to deal with a painful earache, he accidentally punctured his eardrum. This lead to a severe infection in the eardrum, culminating in his eventual death in March 2007 from meningitis-induced cranial complications, according to the coroner who examined his corpse.

Meningitis is a deadly disease caused by bacterial or viral infections (in minor cases, drug allergies), usually through the ear canal. It involves the acute inflammation of the meninges, a protective layer of tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Initial symptoms range anywhere from headaches, fever, or dizziness, to more serious conditions such as blood clotting, gangrene, seizures, brain swelling, and finally death. Due to the dangers of bacterial infection and meningitis contraction from using cotton swabs incorrectly, it is recommended to not use these cotton swabs to clean the inner region of your ears. We mean, excess earwax or bacterial meningitis, take your pick. Fun times, either way.

5. Aflatoxicosis


Sometimes you feel a little “snacky” and happen to pass by a little convenience store or pharmacy, and pick up a pack of peanuts or pistachios to munch on without a second thought. But did you know that you may be consuming dangerous levels of aflatoxins, which can cause serious complications with both short and long term levels of exposure? Aflatoxins are a group of mycotoxins produced by Aspergillus species, which is a type of fungus which usually lives in damp soils but is known to colonize in large storages of nuts, corn, and other cereal foods.

The aflatoxins they produce can cause aflatoxicosis in sufficient concentrations. This can lead to serious conditions, such as liver cirrhosis and cancer, internal bleeding, coma, and even death. The most concerning fact about these aflatoxins is how common they are in consumer goods. Nut products from Malaysia and China have been demonstrated as recently as 2011 to contain dangerous levels of aflatoxins, far exceeding the FDA recommended limit of 20 parts per billion. When you consider that a lot of manufactured goods from China and other Asian countries are sold in the U.S., it’s important to know exactly what you’re eating, especially if it can kill you.

4. Stevens-Johnson syndrome


This rare but horrible skin disease, affecting only 1-in-10,000 people, causes black blotches to form on the skin due to massive cell necrosis. In fact, this actually leads to the epidermis of the skin separating from the dermis. Imagine the top part of your skin being ripped off from your body; this is exactly what patients of Stevens-Johnson syndrome have had to endure. It is thought to be caused by hypersensitive reactions in the body affecting the skin and mucous membranes. The most common triggers of this disease include prescription drugs, but over the counter drugs such as Ibuprofen and sulfonamides (found in medicated soaps) have been named as causes.

A landmark lawsuit in Massachusetts demonstrated the potential risks associated with these over the counter drugs, as the parents of Samantha Reckis filed a lawsuit against Johnson Johnson in 2003. They claimed that their child contracted Stevens-Johnson syndrome from taking Children’s Motrin (Ibuprofen), and subsequently lost 95% of her skin and even became blind. The judge in that case awarded in favor of Reckis for the enormous sum of $63 million, one of the largest awards of its kind. The decision was recently upheld on appeal this year.

3. Reye’s Syndrome


When that terrible headache comes on, you usually reach for some Aspirin to make it all go away. But did you know that Aspirin has been associated with a disease that causes brain and liver swelling? Not exactly a good trade off, if you ask us. Reye’s syndrome is a rare but serious disease causing encephalopathy (swelling of brain) and hepatopathy (swelling of liver), causing life threatening damage to these major organs. This illness is most prevalent in children or teenagers shortly after recovering from a flu or any other viral illnesses, such as chickenpox.

Although the exact cause is still unknown, epidemiological studies have strongly linked consumption of Aspirin to onset of the disease, so much so that the FDA had ordered warning labels to be printed on Aspirin bottles to display the risk of Reye’s disease to children in the 1980s. Currently, the CDC and FDA advise parents not to give Aspirin to children under 19 with any fevers caused by illnesses. The incidence for Reye’s syndrome is quite rare with adults, so most likely popping that pill to curb that splitting headache isn’t going to give you permanent brain damage, but it’s always good to be aware.

2. Liver Disease


Johnson Johnson pharmaceutical company (yep, them again) has been the subject of numerous lawsuits over its popular pain relieving medication Tylenol. Alleged victims have claimed that they’ve sustained serious liver damage from usage of the product and the company has failed to perform due diligence in informing the customers of the risks. The active ingredient in Tylenol is acetaminophen (paracetamol), a mild analgesic (pain reliever) and antipyretic (fever reducer) sold over the counter to relieve symptoms of headaches, fevers, and various forms of back and joint pain.

However, as noted by the Food and Drug Administration, any small overdose in acetaminophen consumption can cause serious liver damage, leading to symptoms ranging from jaundice to complete liver failure, requiring a liver transplant. Overdoses can easily occur, as the average person may be taking multiple medications and be unaware that each contains acetaminophen. The FDA recommends a dosage of no more than 325mg of acetaminophen be administered to the patient.

1. Toxic Shock Syndrome


One morning, 24 year old Lauren Wasser woke up feeling a bit off, with what she thought was the flu. She was also on her period, so she got up and went to the local pharmacy to pick up some tampons. After she went to a birthday party, she went back home and went to sleep. The next morning, she woke up to the sound of a police officer, who her mom sent to check on her. He asked if she wanted an ambulance, to which she responded that she just wanted some sleep and she would call her mom in the morning. The next morning, the mom sent a friend with the police to find Lauren unconscious on the bedroom floor, a few moments from death. She was rushed to the hospital with a 107 degree fever. The doctors, confused about the symptoms, asked if she had a tampon in. It so happened that she did; later tests on the tampon showed that it was positive for toxic shock syndrome.

Toxic shock syndrome is a rare disease caused by Staphylococci colonies releasing toxins inside the body. The gel matrix of the over the counter tampons make it an ideal environment for bacterial growth. The worst part is that this information has been known for decades, with tampon companies such as Kotex issuing warning labels for the products with the risks of TSS associated with tampon use. So ladies, be mindful of the risks with these feminine hygiene products and keep yourselves safe.

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