A ticklish moment over the counter at the chemist's

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Of the many gaps in my medical knowledge, few can be more substantial than my grasp of over-the-counter drugs (or OTCs as we doctors call them). I rarely use OTCs myself and my visits to the chemist are limited to a quick raid on male grooming products and picking up peanut-free nipple spray for my wife (to soothe the pain of breast-feeding). As a child, I was once sent to fetch a tube of haemorrhoid cream for a relative, with the unfortunate name of Anusol (the cream, not the relative). Try as I might to disguise the pronunciation (Anewsol, Annusol, etc), the pharmacist insisted on loudly dispensing a tube of Anus-ol. On top of this trauma, I was chastised on my return home for throwing away the empty tube which, allegedly, had one good smearing left in it.

So OTCs and I do not get on. On the few occasions when I need a morning- after painkiller, I pop one of the millions I've confiscated from old ladies' drug cabinets. As a teenager, I did once drop a Do-Do tablet on the understanding that it had mood-altering qualities (I'm still waiting), but since then I can honestly say that not a single Lemsip has passed my lips. Until yesterday. Yesterday I had a tickly cough, I mean really tickly. So tickly that it took over my entire life and plunged me into the depths of despair. I was going to call my family doctor, just for a laugh, and insist that he visit me at home - "It's too tickly to come to the surgery" - but he has a heart condition and it would probably kill him.

We Brits are foolish enough to invest in 6 million gallons of cough mixture a year, despite the lack of evidence it does one jot of good. Two days ago, I would have sneered at such stupidity, but yesterday I was being tickled to death (well, it felt like it, anyway). So off I popped to Boots to browse around the linctuses. I took the precaution of wearing a raincoat and shades - as a GP, being caught in possession of a cough mixture is worse for your reputation than being spotted out the back of Ann Summers - but by some amazing coincidence the first one I spied was Lemsip Tickly Cough. Imagine that, a remedy designed just for me. I was so impressed I bought the company. Two bottles of it, at least.

Today I felt much better and attacked my patients with renewed vigour. Everything was going swimmingly until Mr Hickey asked me whether the penicillin I'd just given him for his dry, tickly cough would interact with his Fennings Little Healers. My GP (you know, the one with the heart condition) would have snuffed it on the spot at such a preposterous question, but I'm made of sterner stuff. "How the bloody hell should I know?" I barked, reflecting the question back at Mr Hickey, as I'd been taught to do in communication skills. He hadn't brought the tube with him ("It's white with green lettering and a yellow top") and had no idea what Mr Fenning put in his Little Healers.

Just as I felt my chest tightening, I spied a discarded OTC directory on the smear trolley under the gallstones. This fascinating publication is not one I'm familiar with, but it lists every product that any idiot might wish to buy for trivial, self-limiting illness. There, on page 63, are "Fennings Little Healers, for coughs with colds and catarrh. Contains Ipecac 20mg". Now I've only ever used Ipecac to make children vomit when they've swallowed something indigestible, but I declined to pass this on to Mr Hickey, who was, in any case, asleep. Delving deeper into the directory, I discovered a cornucopia of silly names. Doan's Extra Strength Backache Pills, Nurse Sykes' Powders, Indian Brandee, Jaaps Grape Saline Health Salts, Hofels Odourless One-a-day Garlic Tablets, Red Kooga Betalife and Potters Peerless Composition Essence... How could I have lived so long and yet experienced so little?

And there's more. Did you know you can buy 73 general painkillers, 16 treatments for mouth discomfort, 34 muscular pain relievers, 50 stomach remedies, 29 laxatives, 15 antidiarrhoeals, 71 cold remedies, 23 sore throat soothers, 16 haemorrhoid helpers, 7 dandruff disguisers, 16 baby teething suggestions, 22 antiseptics, 32 zit creams, 16 fish oils and 35 dietary supplements? There are 78 remedies for coughs alone and Lemsip, I've discovered, aren't the only ones to manipulate the tickled. Why so many? Who knows? Presumably they wouldn't be on the shelves if the likes of Mr Hickey and me didn't buy them. As Lily Tomlin put it: "Reality is a crutch for people who can't cope with drugs".