The medicines that are bad for our hearts

Many over-the-counter soluble medicines contain so much salt they put your heart health at risk


Many over-the-counter soluble medicines contain so much salt they put your heart health at risk

Soluble medicines such as pain killers and cold and flu remedies can contain as much sodium as 21 packets of crisps, a new survey from Which? has revealed. The consumer watchdog analysed a number of over-the-counter soluble and effervescent medicines and found that the equivalent salt (sodium chloride) levels could easily take you over the 6g recommended maximum for salt per day, before you’ve even eaten anything. 

Which? are now calling for labelling on medicine packets in the same way that foods are labelled.

Eating too much salt puts up our blood pressure which can lead to serious health problems like heart disease and stroke. While many people know that salt isn’t good for their health, most people don’t know how much salt they eat because as most salt is hidden in foods we buy. It may come as a shock that medicines can be adding to your salt intake as well.

Soluble pain killers, cold and flu remedies, heartburn and indigestion medicines and vitamin supplements have sodium added to them to help dissolve quickly in water. And sodium is the part of salt that puts up our blood pressure.

The Which? survey highlighted the shocking amounts of sodium in many products. For example: 

  • Panadol extra soluble tablets contain the equivalent of 1.2g of salt per tablet. If you took the maximum safe number of tablets per day that would add up to 9.6g of salt – one and a half times the 6g salt maximum, and about the same as more than 20 packets of Walkers ready salted crisps.
  • Beechams Cold Relief orange flavour effervescent tablets contain the equivalent of 2.1g of salt per dose (two tablets), so eight tablets in a day would equate to 8.4g of salt.
  • One tablet of Berocca, the soluble vitamin tablet, contains the equivalent of 0.65g salt, more than a packet of ready salted crisps.

Harry Rose, editor of Which? Magazine said: The salt content in medicines and supplements should be made clear on the packaging and not buried in a leaflet inside, so that people can make informed decisions about their purchases.” 

The manufacturers argued that soluble medicines are an alternative for people who can’t swallow solid tablets, so comparing them to crisps is not comparing like with like. John Smith, chief executive at the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents manufacturers of over the counter medicines, said these products were for short-term relief and information on appropriate is included in the packaging.

Which? pointed out that some tablets are intended for daily use, such as Berocca which contains about the same amount of salt as 1.5 packets of crisps and more than 10% of your daily maximum – so can make a significant contribution to your salt intakes.

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Blood Pressure UK and Action on Salt, said: "This is really quite a serious hidden problem. Many of the people who take these medications are elderly and it is likely to take their salt intake way above what it should be, leaving them at a greater risk of stroke or heart disease.”

While the news could be very surprising to many, it’s not the first time we have commented on this topic. In 2013, Researchers at the University of Dundee and University College London found that maximum daily dose of some medicines would exceed the recommended daily limits for sodium. In a 23 year study of over 1.2 million people, the researchers found that people taking sodium-containing effervescent, dispersible and soluble medications were seven times more likely to develop high blood pressure and had a 16% increased risk of a heart attack, stroke or vascular death compared with other patients taking the non-sodium versions of the same medications.

If you’re worried about your medicines…

Not all soluble and effervescent medicines are high in sodium, for example aspirin contains a very small amount.

Check the label of your medicines to see how much sodium they contain. Speak to your pharmacist about whether there are any lower sodium or non-effervescent versions available and if it’s worth switching.

To find the amount in salt, times the amount of sodium (which will be written in milligrams) by 2.5, then divide by 1000, and you will find the amount of salt (in g).

Read more

Read the news story from Which? 

The survey received a lot of attention from the media, including in The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and we are quoted in The Independent.