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Use Your Medications Wisely

You don't have to look past your medicine chest to find prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies that can make you feel better, improve your health, and even save your life.

We use more medications, supplements, and herbal therapies today than ever. A survey found four out of five U.S. adults take at least one medication each week. More than one in four adults takes at least five medications.

That's no surprise when you think of what medications can do. They help treat chronic diseases, strengthen bones, lift depression, ease pain, cure infections, and reduce fever.

But medication can have a downside. Although most of them are safe when you take them the right way, some drugs can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bleeding, irregular heartbeats, and other side effects in some cases.

Research estimates that over 700,000 people go to emergency rooms each year because of harmful medication effects. Accidental overdoses and allergic reactions are the top problems. Older adults are more likely to have trouble than younger patients. In people over age 65, three drugs—insulin for diabetes, the blood thinner warfarin, and the heart medication digoxin—cause about a third of the emergency visits.

Know side effects

Experts say the message for patients is that they should know the potential side effects of the medications they're taking. It's also important for patients to know if any of their medications require special monitoring and to make sure they get the monitoring they need.

Prescription drugs aren't the only cause for concern. The FDA requires specific warning labels on OTC pain relievers that contain acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Acetaminophen is one of the most frequently used drugs in the United States. The warnings note that it is linked to liver damage in people who use high doses, who take more than one product that contains acetaminophen, or who consume alcohol regularly. NSAIDs may increase the risk for stomach bleeding in some patients.

Consider some other factors if you take prescription or OTC products. Although one medication alone can cause side effects, two or more may interact with each other and cause adverse reactions. Even food and beverages can change the way your body handles medications. For example, alcohol can strengthen the effects of some medications, and food can slow or speed the absorption of some drugs.

Still, there's no need to give up medications.

Safe in the short term

Most people who take prescription and over-the-counter medications for a short period of time can use them safely. But they should also be aware that just because their doctor prescribes medication, or they can walk in and buy something off the shelf, doesn't mean that there aren't any risks.

You can take steps to make medications as safe as possible:

  • Know the brand and generic names and doses of all your medications.

  • Learn the side effects of the medications and supplements you take.

  • Have one health care provider manage all your medications. Tell your health care provider about all the OTC products you take, too.

  • Ask your health care provider what side effects your medications can cause. What should you do if those side effects strike you?

  • Keep a current list of medications, vitamins, supplements, and OTC drugs you take. Share it with all your health care providers or with emergency workers.

  • Use one pharmacy so your pharmacist can track your medications and spot potential interactions.

  • Talk with your health care provider or pharmacist before you stop or add medications.

Managing your medications wisely means taking the right dose at the right time and in the right way. It's worth the effort. It can help you gain better control of your health and improve the quality of your life.