The Medicine Cabinet

Below you will find a list of common medications, their purpose and examples of the products used. Note: Brands are the proprietary names and trademarks of the pharmaceutical companies that make and distribute them.

The Medicine Cabinet

This content is for educational information only. Ask your doctor or pharmacist any questions you may have about taking your medications.


Commonly know as
pain meds

They are used for
headaches, muscle aches and pains

Nurofen (ibuprofen)
Tylenol (acetaminophen)

“Feeling no pain” in Greek. These are some of the most common medications taken. Many are available OTC (over the counter-without prescription). Most all of these drugs work on three things: pain, inflammation, and fever. Each varies in its potency for one of these three complaints. Aspirin and Tylenol are taken for colds, headaches, sinus pain, muscular aches. Aspirin has a strong anti-inflammatory action and is often taken for many problems involving inflammatory reactions: infections, bruising, broken bones and arthritis.

Severe pain, such as after surgery, may require stronger analgesics, narcotics, such as codeine.


Commonly know as
indigestion pills

They are used for

Zantac (ranitidine)

Who hasn’t had “heartburn” after a big, fatty or spicy meal? So called “heartburn” has nothing to do with the heart, but refers to the burning pain felt behind the breast bone related to meals. The cause is gastric acid backing up into the esophagus.

There are three levels of treatment for mild to moderate to severe symptoms. Popping a Rennie or Tums, which contains an alkaline chemical, directly neutralises acid. If heartburn occurs frequently, several times a week, your physician may recommend Zantac or Pepcid which are OTC available histamine blockers. Histamine in the stomach is one of the signals that stimulates acid production. For severe heartburn your physician may prescribe a medication that directly blocks acid production, a proton-pump inhibitor, such as Prevacid (sounds like someone combined “prevent” and “acid”). Each is progressively more effective, but more expensive and with more side effects.


Commonly know as
rheumatism pills

They are used for
rheumatoid arthritis

Aleve (naproxin)
Celebrex (celecoxib)
Humira (adalimumab)
Remicade (infliximab)

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, that is, the immune system attacks joint tissue as if it were foreign tissue leading to joint pain, swelling, redness, warmth (the four criteria of inflammation). Ultimately, joint tissues are damaged. The cause is unknown, but something triggers the inflammatory reaction which becomes chronic and results in destruction of joint structures.

All antiarthritic medications have a common goal, to avoid, suppress or interrupt the inflammatory process. Keep in mind that inflammation is a normal and desirable process when we have an infection. Normally, the inflammatory process, involving bringing in leucocytes (white blood cells) and antibodies does its job and then resolves with the healing process. It is when inflammation develops as a result of an abnormal trigger and/or becomes chronic that normal tissues can be damaged with joint destruction and immobility as a result.

Aspirin and Aleve belong to a category of drugs called NSAIDS (nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs). These medications inhibit synthesis of an intermediary chemical in the inflammatory process called prostaglandins.


Commonly know as
bug killers

They are used for
microbial infections

Amoxil (amoxicillin)
Keflex (cephalexin)
Pen-Vee (Penicillin)
Septra (sulfamethoxazole)
Vibramycin (doxycycline)

There are many of these drugs so only a brief overview can be offered. Two major categories are called broad spectrum meaning many types of microorganisms are affected, and narrow spectrum meaning one or a few microorganisms are affected. First, how do antibiotics work? How can they kill “bugs” but not us? Two examples follow: Humans need folic acid but can’t make it, so we have to get it in our diet as a vitamin. Bacteria can’t take in folic acid, so they must make it. Sulfa drugs block synthesis of folic acid. Voila! Okay for us. Bad for bacteria. Another example is bacteria have an extra layer around themselves called a cell wall. Penicillins block cell wall synthesis. Humans lack a cell wall outside our cell membranes. Okay for us. Bad for bacteria.

Sulphonamides, also called sulpha drugs, were the earliest antibiotics. In those old WWII movies when you see them sprinkling a powder on wounds, that may be a sulpha drug. Over time many organisms have developed resistance to sulpha drugs, so newer antibiotics have to be used. Or, patients develop allergic reactions to sulfa drugs and they must be replaced with other antibiotics. However, they are still used for urinary tract infections and in burn units among other specific uses.

Penicillin is effective against a wide variety of microorganisms including pneumococcal pneumonia, staphylococcal infections, meningitis, syphilis and gonorrhea. How would you know that nafcillin, oxacillin, ampicillin and amoxicillin are all forms of peniCILLIN? Unfortunately, some individuals develop an allergic reaction to penicillins and many microorganisms have become resistant. In this category are newer antibiotics called cephalosporins. Resistant strains have developed against these antibiotics also. What is the nature of antibiotic resistance (more difficult to kill)? In the case of penicillins some microorganisms have developed an enzyme, penicillinase, that inactivates the antibiotic. Microorganisms may also change the chemical structure of their cell walls, the target of penicillins and cephalosporins. Those wily bacteria!

Tetracyclines interfere with bacterial protein synthesis. They effectively stop bacterial growth so our immune system can finish them off. This works because of subtle differences in the protein making machinery of microorganisms and human cells. Tetracyclines are used in chlamydial infections, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, mycoplasma pneumonia, cholera, syphilis, among others. Another inhibitor of protein synthesis is Erythromycin which is the drug of choice for Legionnaires Disease and one of the few antibiotics that can penetrate the prostate gland. Since it covers a similar spectrum of microorganisms as penicillins, it can be used to treat syphilis in patients who are allergic to penicillin.

Why won’t my doctor prescribe an antibiotic when I have a really bad cold? Common colds are caused by viruses. Viruses have neither cell walls nor their own metabolic machinery (they use yours). Consequently, antibiotics don’t work against viruses.


Commonly know as
blood thinners

They are used for
prevent blood clots

Coumadin (warfarin)
Plavix (clopidogrel)

Well, they really don’t make your blood thinner. What they do is make your blood less likely to clot (coagulate) when it is undesirable for clotting to take place like inside your coronary arteries (remember thrombus and embolus?). Since anticoagulants interfere with the clotting mechanism, their use must be carefully monitored to make sure clotting does take place normally with a finger cut, but prevent clots forming after your hip surgery.


Commonly know as
epilepsy drugs

They are used for
prevent seizures

Dilantin (phenytoin)
Neurontin (gabapentin)

Although head trauma or a brain tumor can cause seizures, many times there is no specific cause and it may be inherited. The function of anticonvulsant drugs is to suppress the source of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Dilantin is a first choice drug in controlling many forms of seizures. Dilantin along with Valium (a tranquiliser) are first line drugs for “status epilepticus”, continuous seizure activity which must be stopped quickly. However, there are various anticonvulsants for specific forms of epilepsy, all with differing effectiveness, side effects and potential drug interactions with other medications. Many famous people have had epilepsy: Socrates, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Handel, Charles Dickens, Alfred Nobel and Elton John among many others.


Commonly know as

They are used for
relieve depression

Elavil (amitriptyline)
Prozac (fluoxetine)
Zoloft (sertraline)

All of us have days when we feel “blue” and for some good reason, disappointment or bad news. But, persistent sadness, preoccupation with negative thoughts, insomnia, prolonged loss of concentration at work and loss of interest in personal affairs may signal a need for medical intervention. All these medications elevate mood from feeling “down”. Two major categories of drugs in use for depression are called tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s). Put simply, both medications modify the chemicals (neurotransmitters) that carry signals in our brain. They target brain areas that are associated with emotional feelings and our reactions to them. Feel better? Act better!


Commonly know as
cold and flu pills

They are used for
stops a runny nose, wheezing and itchiness

Allegra (fexofenadine)
Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
Claritin (loratadine)

Histamine is a natural substance produced by many tissues of the body. Histamine release in nasal passages in response to bacteria or virus infection, sensitivity to various pollens results in a runny nose and nasal congestion. Histamine release in lung tissue causes constriction of air passages. Histamine release in the skin produces redness and itchiness. So, the wide distribution of histamine and its unique actions in those tissues account for the variety of reactions that can occur with its release. Antihistamines block the action of histamine at its target organ.


Commonly know as
blood pressure pills

They are used for
lowers high blood pressure

Norvasc (amlodipine besylate)
Captopen (captopril)
Inderal (propranolol)
Lotensin (benazepril)
Tenormin (atenolol)
Zestril (lisinopril)

Cardiac drugs

Commonly know as
heart medicine

They are used for
treats abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, angina pain

Cardizem (diltiazem)
Cordarone (amiodarone)
Inderal (propranolol)
Lanoxin (digoxin)
Nitrostat (nitroglycerin)

There are three major uses for heart medications: regulate an abnormal rhythm (pattern of contractions), strengthen the contractions of a failing heart, respond to cardiac pain.

An irregular heart rhythm can lead to a fatal arrhythmia, sudden cardiac death, that is, the heart pumping action failing and stopping. In the normal heart there is one special area of tissue, the pacemaker, that sets “the beat”, the heart rhythm. If an area of the heart becomes irritable or damaged, it can become an abnormal pacemaker. Antiarrhythmic drugs suppress abnormal, irritable tissue from taking over from the normal pacemaker. A myocardial infarct, “heart attack”, may cause abnormal pacemakers to appear or may disrupt the normal signal conduction pathway through the myocardium. Antiarrhythmic drugs also suppress abnormal conduction pathways. In an oversimplified way, many antiarrhythmic drugs act like a local anesthetic on the myocardium.

The heart may begin to lose efficiency as a pump due to long term hypertension causing back pressure in the heart, a damaged heart valve allowing leakage can cause back pressure or damaged myocardium can result in reduced pumping efficiency following a heart attack. The back pressure in the heart causes fluid to back up in the lungs, hence the name, congestive heart failure (CHF). The failing heart needs a boost, a drug that will strengthen the force of contractions. Digitalis (Lanoxin in cabinet) is a standard drug used in CHF. Diuretics (see that category) and drugs that dilate blood vessels to lower pressure may also be used to reduce the work load on the heart.

Cardiac ischemia produces a unique pain called angina pectoris. It is the heart’s cry for more oxygen due to inadequate coronary artery blood flow. One patient described it “like an elephant sitting on my chest”. A commonly used medication for angina is nitroglycerine. It is not an analgesic, but relieves the cause of the pain, insufficient blood flow to the myocardium. This medication causes the coronary arteries to dilate allowing more blood flow to heart muscle and the anginal pain subsides.


Commonly know as
water pills

They are used for
lowers high blood pressure, treat congestive heart failure

Hydrodiuril (hydrochlorothiazide)
Lasix (furosemide)

“Promoting urine” in Greek. These medications may be used alone or in combination with blood pressure medication. Their purpose is to rid the body of excess fluid which can help lower blood pressure and work demand on the heart. Easing the heart’s work load indirectly prevents fluid accumulation in the air sacs of the lungs which can cause difficulty breathing, especially when lying down. The most common mechanism is to reduce reabsorption of sodium chloride (salt) in the kidneys. More sodium chloride in the urine pulls more water into the urine reducing the body’s fluid volume.

Erectile Dysfunction

They are used for

Cialis (tadalafil)
Viagra (sildenafil)

Erectile dysfunction, what used to be called “impotency”, is the inability to achieve or sustain an erection sufficient to complete intercourse. The three current oral medications for this complaint work by a similar mechanism. Achieving an erection depends upon an hydraulic function of increasing blood flow into the penis at a rate faster than the penile veins can drain it away. Sexual stimulation causes a chemical, nitric oxide, to be released by the lining of the penile arteries which causes relaxation of the muscles of the arterial walls resulting in dilating (widening) of the arteries and increased blood flow. Each of these drugs contain a chemical that slows down the destruction of nitrous oxide so the latter prolongs the dilation of the penile arteries. Note that the medication must act on existing nitric oxide released by sexual stimulation. Popping a pill is not enough. No sexual stimulation. No erection.

Although these drugs work by a similar mechanism, they may differ in their effectiveness in individual patients, side effects and drug interactions.


Commonly know as
sleeping pills

They are used for

Ambien (zolpidemtartrate)
Lunesta (eszopiclone)
Sonata (zaleplon)

Chronic insomnia, not being able to get to sleep, frequent waking up, not getting enough sleep, can ruin your day! People with sleeping problems may feel drowsy, even nod off, during the work day. Chronic fatigue from lack of sufficient rest is physically and emotionally draining. Hypnotics are sleep-inducing drugs. Their activity is similar to anti-anxiety medications (see “downers” in the list), tamping down brain activity so you can more easily fall asleep and stay asleep. Hypnotics differ in emphasis. Some are most effective in helping you fall asleep, but are very short acting, and may not be very effective for staying asleep. Others are more effective in minimising number of awakenings for up to eight hours. All hypnotics have a sedation effect. So, you still may be drowsy during the day, but from medication effects. Your physician can best determine the choice of drug and dosage that will balance a good night’s rest with minimal or no daytime sedation.

Hypoglycemic agents

Commonly know as
diabetic drugs

They are used for
lowers high blood sugar

Diabeta (Glyburide)
Glucophage (metformin)
Glucotrol (glipizide)

Osteoporosis therapy

Commonly know as
Bone pills

They are used for
strengthens bones

Actonel (risendronate)
Boniva (ibandronate)
Fosamax (alendronate)


Commonly know as

They are used for

Valium (diazepam)
Xanax (alprazolam)

From time to time we all feel stressed about our job or what our teenagers are up to, but we manage to get on with our lives. Sometimes, however, we feel constantly on edge and overwhelmed with worry to the point that it interferes with tasks of daily living. The normal “fear” response takes over inappropriately, and we become immobilised with anxiety. These medications may supplement the support from loved ones and professional counseling. The most commonly used tranquilisers (anxiolytics, antianxiety drugs) have two major actions: to reduce anxiety and to sedate (sleep-inducing). The basic mechanism is to inhibit activity in the area of the brain associated with “fear”. The challenge for your physician is to choose a medication that will reduce anxiety without your falling asleep at your work during the day!