The Five Most Dangerous Medicine Mistakes that
Way Too Many People Make
© 2023 Health Realizations, Inc.
At least half of all Americans take one or more prescription drugs, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). One in six of us take three or more.
For those aged 65 and older, five out of six take at least one medication, and nearly half take three or more, the same report found.
"Americans are taking medicines that lower cholesterol and reduce the threat of heart disease, that help lift people out of debilitating depressions, and that keep diabetes in check," said former HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.
Surely, the list goes on from there, which begs the question: If close to the majority of Americans are taking drugs, how many of them are making mistakes with their medications that could result in harm?
Even under the best circumstances, drugs carry risks. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in four patients suffer from side effects of prescription medications. However, when important information is overlooked, or mistakes relating to your prescription made, you may be subjecting yourself to dangerous, yet preventable, effects.
If you or someone you love takes prescription medication, browse through these five dangerous medicine mistakes and take care to ensure that you don't make them.
1) Not Paying Attention to a Drug's Potential Side Effects
Many people are not aware of a drug's potential side effects, even as they are taking it. A study on over-the-counter and prescription painkillers, for instance, found that 54 percent of those surveyed did not know of the drugs' potential side effects. Further, of those who had experienced side effects, 30 percent did not consider themselves at risk of them.
Before you make the decision to take a drug, make sure you know what the side effects could entail, and where you stand risk-wise.
Some drugs' side effects are not what you would expect (i.e. a rash, nausea, upset stomach), but instead are quite unusual. So if you are taking Prozac and suddenly end up with blurry vision, you will know to make the connection (Prozac and other antidepressants have been linked to blurred vision).
How to Avoid this Mistake: Ask your doctor about a drug's potential side effects before you take it. Then, ask your pharmacist to double-check. When you bring the drug home, read the label and information booklet it comes with, paying special attention to any warnings and side effects. You can also search for drug side effects using the Internet or a trusted guidebook like The Pill Book.
2) Taking a Drug that Can Interact Negatively with Another Drug
The more drugs you take (and this includes prescription, over-the-counter, vitamins and herbs), the greater your risk of experiencing an adverse drug reaction becomes. The risk increases extremely if you are taking four or more different drugs.
In terms of prescription drugs, there are several categories that are especially risky when it comes to interactions. These include:
- Certain cardiac drugs such as digoxin, warfarin, and amiodarone
However, over-the-counter drugs are not immune. Antacids taken for indigestion can interact with prescription medications, and antihistamines, used for sneezing, runny nose, hay fever, etc., should not be taken with sedatives (sleeping pills) or tranquilizers.
Even herbs carry risks of side effects and drug interactions. St. John's wort, for instance, which is used to relieve depression and anxiety, can interfere with how drugs are processed in the body, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Drugs that can be affected by this herb include:
Indinavir and possibly other drugs used to control HIV infection
Irinotecan and possibly other drugs used to treat cancer
Cyclosporine, which prevents the body from rejecting transplanted organs
Digoxin, which strengthens heart muscle contractions
Warfarin and related anticoagulants
Birth control pills
How to Avoid this Mistake: Make sure your doctor is aware of your medication history and drugs you are currently taking -- including vitamins, herbs and over-the-counter meds. If he or she doesn't ask (though they should), bring it up and tell them yourself!
You can ask your doctor specifically: "Will this new medication interact with X, Y or Z?" (the medications you're already taking). Later when you pick up your prescription, check with the pharmacist to see whether the drug interacts with anything you're already taking. Be aware also that some drugs interact with food, beverages and alcohol, so you check with your doctor and pharmacist to be sure.
3) Not Analyzing Your Prescription to Make Sure it is Correct
Sometimes it's easy to forget that doctors are only human, and they make human mistakes. They may mistakenly write down the wrong medication on their prescription pad, or the wrong dose or frequency. Pharmacists, too, can make mistakes in what they fill.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine study, 39 percent of the side effects experienced by patients were preventable. Out of these cases:
- Patients were told to take the drug too frequently 10 percent of the time
How to Avoid this Mistake: You must double-check the prescription paper you're given, as well as the bottle of pills you pick up. Make sure the slip of paper your doctor hands you is for the medication he or she said it was, and at the same dosage. If you notice any discrepancies, ask your doctor. If you're picking up a new drug from the pharmacy, you can check The Pill Book to make sure the pill matches up with the prescription. (The book contains pictures of pills so you can compare.)
4) Storing Your Prescriptions Improperly
Certain medications are very sensitive to heat, humidity, light, oxygen and moisture. If a medication is stored improperly, even for a short time, the medication may break down, rendering it less effective. Further, when medications degrade they may not be able to dissolve properly, and won't be able to be used correctly by your body.
"[This] can be a significant problem when you carry medicine around in a poorly sealed container under high humidity, as occurs along the Gulf Coast," says L. Timothy Grady, Ph.D., vice president and director of standard development at the U.S. Pharmacopeia, a standards-setting organization. "Carrying medicine in a pocket next to the body can raise the temperature."
How to Avoid this Mistake: Most people tend to store drugs in one of the hottest, most humid places in the house: the bathroom. Read the medication's label and store accordingly. You will find that the bathroom is probably the last place they should be kept. A cool kitchen cabinet (out of reach of children or pets) may be a better choice, and be aware that some drugs do need to be kept refrigerated.
5) Taking Drugs Not According to Doc's Instructions
Up to half of Americans taking prescription medications do not take them as prescribed, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Some patients may skip doses or take extra pills in an attempt to intensify the drug's effects. Others may feel better and stop taking a prescription before it's finished, only to pick it up again months or years later when similar symptoms arise.
Misusing medications can have serious results. A missed dose of glaucoma medication, for instance, can result in optic nerve damage or blindness. And overusing medications runs the risk of overdosing or becoming dependent, where you must take more and more of the medication to feel its effects, or you become addicted to it.
But according to Professor Rob Horne, an expert in psychology in health care at Brighton University, "One of the main reasons why people don't take medicines is that they don't want to. They either make a decision either not to take it all or to take less."
Often, this occurs when a patient begins to feel better, such as with antibiotics or anti-rejection drugs for transplant patients.
However, if the entire course of antibiotics is not finished, the infection may not be completely killed, and even if a transplant patient feels "used" to a transplanted organ, the body may not.
How to Avoid this Mistake: Follow your doctor's instructions on how to take your medication. Don't skip doses or take extra pills, and do finish the entire course of medication. If you have concerns about side effects or dosage, talk to your doctor before making changes.
Finally, if you have old pills, dispose of them -- don't take outdated prescriptions (or someone else's meds) because you think you have the same symptoms.
Almost Half of Americans Take at Least One Prescription Drug
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
U.S. FDA Tips for Taking Medications
BBC News: Why Don't People Take Medicine?
Medical News Today: People Not Aware of Harmful Effects of Painkiller