What experts keep in their medicine cabinets… and you should, too

Have we ever been more focused on our health? As people are stock up their bathroom cabinets and first-aid boxes like never before, Lucy Elkins asked experts which over-the-counter products they swear by

There’s some evidence that interdental brushes are more effective than floss – and you can keep them forever if you look after them
Lucy Elkins


:: Spray for a sore throat:

Anaesthetic throat spray is a gem for a sore throat, says pharmacist Sid Dajani. Lozenges can numb the whole of your mouth, which I find unpleasant, but with sprays you can target the exact area that's causing problems. I use it myself.

I challenge patients to try it at the counter of my pharmacy and if their throat doesn't feel better by the time they reach the door, they can have their money back. In 16 years, it's never failed.

I don't recommend a particular brand, as long as it contains a local anaesthetic such as lidocaine. (For example, Ultra Chloraseptic Anaesthetic Throat Spray, 15ml, £5.99, most pharmacies.)

I also swear by Care ViraSoothe Chickenpox Relief Cooling Gel (75g, £8.50, from most chemists) for insect bites or itchy rashes.

It contains glycerine which evaporates on the skin, producing a cooling effect that helps alleviate any sort of itch or skin irritation, including eczema and nettle stings. I use it on my kids, and even my dogs.


:: Cream for cracked heels:

Twice a day, I massage CCS Foot Care Cream (175ml, £7.99, into my feet, paying special attention to the heel area, says podiatrist Michael Abrahams. This is prone to drying out, so the skin becomes thick and hard to remove.

In older people especially, deep cracks can form, allowing infection to penetrate.

There are so many foot creams, some quite pricey, but this one is inexpensive and contains 10 per cent urea, a compound that attracts water and intensively moisturises. It's what you want to keep skin soft. I have been using it for years and I have great feet.


:: Drinks with beneficial bacteria

Professor of medicine and gastroenterology Peter Whorwell says: I am an advocate of probiotics – which contain ‘gut-friendly' bacteria – and take one every day to help my immune system. The one I've been taking for 15 years is Actimel (eight 100ml bottles, £2,

I started taking it when I did some research with the maker (I'm not working for it now) and I saw its studies showing how it can boost the immune response, especially after having the flu vaccine. It contains Lactobacillus casei strains. Some probiotics have also been shown to help irritable bowel syndrome and there's some evidence they could help prevent infections leading to diarrhoea after taking antibiotics.

I take them in the hope they might reduce the number of colds I get. I can't say for sure if they do, but I don't catch many colds and I'm generally quite healthy.

There are some provisos to taking them, such as people with a compromised immune system for whom it may not make sense to swallow more bacteria.


:: Allergy spray for blocked noses:

For people who often suffer from a blocked, stuffy nose, as I sometimes do – or other nasal issues such as sinus pain – I recommend Pirinase Hay Fever Nasal Spray (8.8 ml, £6.99, most chemists), says consultant ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon Dr Adam Frosh.

The active ingredient is fluticasone propionate, a mild steroid which helps to reduce the nasal tissue swelling, which causes the stuffy sensation. The prescription drug flixonase has the same active ingredient, so it's like getting a prescription drug by the back door – and cheaper if you pay for your prescriptions. I use it myself.

Nasal congestion can occur for numerous reasons, not just allergies; for example, dry atmospheres, or sometimes as a reaction to foods or alcohol [which causes blood vessels to dilate].

At night it can cause snoring, too, so I recommend taking a dose before bed and in the morning. If you do suffer from hay fever, then it's also dual purpose.


:: Supplement to combat statin side-effects:

Many over-the-counter supplements claim to aid heart health, according to consultant cardiologist Dr Sundip Patel.

The only one I really believe in – because it's backed by strong scientific evidence – is Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10 (for example, Nature's Plus Coenzyme Q10, 30 capsules, £16.73,

This is an antioxidant [a compound that helps to defend cells from damage] with various uses, including helping to provide cells with energy.

There's evidence it can also help to improve muscle weakness, a potential side-effect for people taking statins to lower cholesterol.

It's thought that statins may deplete vital chemical levels in the mitochondria [the cell ‘battery'], resulting in muscle pain and weakness.

So if I were taking statins, I would also take CoQ10. I recommend my patients, relatives and friends to take 200 mg twice a day – it certainly won't do any harm.


:: Interdental brushes:

Brushing your teeth is vital for keeping the bacteria that causes gum disease at bay. But toothbrushes can't get in between the teeth, so you need to use floss or interdental brushes, says professor of restorative dentistry Damien Walmsley.

I prefer interdental brushes, which you slip between the gaps in your teeth. There's some evidence they are more effective than dental floss. There are many brands; choose what works for you (for example, Boots Expert Mixed Interdental Brush, £3.25, You'll need a range of sizes for the different-sized gaps between your teeth.

I use them morning and night after brushing my teeth. I'm proud to say I have virtually no gum disease, though I do have one filling dating from drinking sugary drinks in my university days. Apart from that, my teeth are all in very good condition.

You can keep interdental brushes forever if you look after them.


:: Fast-acting ibuprofen:

People tend to think that all ibuprofen is the same, but it isn't, says Dr Andrew

Dowson. The ibuprofen tablets or capsules that come with added lysine or arginine [both amino acids] or sodium salts work 10 to 15 minutes quicker than traditional ibuprofen – an important difference when treating migraine.

Ibuprofen is thought to work on neurotransmitters [brain chemicals involved in transmitting pain], but no-one knows for sure.

The added ingredients help your gut absorb the tablets quicker, so you should take them when pain begins, which is what I do when I get migraines, three to four times a year.

Use these to combat the onset of pain, but after that, or if the pain is constant, then you can revert to cheaper, standard ibuprofen.

Using express ibuprofen (for example, Galpharm Rapid Ibuprofen Lysine, 16 tablets, £1.99, most pharmacies) might also reduce the amount of tablets you need to take overall, as it hits symptoms harder and faster.


:: Good quality footwear

Philip Conaghan is a professor of musculoskeletal medicine. He says:

If I were to recommend one thing, it would be a decent pair of thick-soled, comfortable walking shoes. I'm in my 50s and I have osteoarthritis – so-called wear and tear arthritis. If I walk a bit more than normal or am carrying shopping, I feel it in my spine, knees and hips.

And I'm combating that in the best way possible – by getting more active. I walk for 45 minutes every Saturday and Sunday, and I would walk more if I didn't have a 70-hour working week. Maintaining muscle strength by staying active is absolutely vital and can make all the difference.

Often people begin moving less when they get a bit of joint damage, causing them to struggle to get out of a chair, for instance.

But by keeping your muscles strong, you protect your joints and can delay the need for a knee or hip replacement or even prevent it altogether. That's what I'm trying to do. Thick-soled trainers take the load off your joints – and allow you to walk more. I'm encouraging lots of people in the office to follow my lead with their shoes.

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