Are You Taking the Right Medication?
So you’re taking something to help control your blood pressure, or ease your arthritis pain, or relieve your cold symptoms. Whatever medication you may be taking right now, is it helping or hurting you?
The idea, of course, is that it should help you. Many of today’s medicines are very effective, even necessary. But if you don’t know for sure what you’re taking and the right way to take it, nearly any over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drug has the potential to harm your health.
Treat medication with respect
“More people than ever before are on medications to maintain their health, and the number is only going to increase,” notes Sandra Kweder, M.D., deputy director of the FDA’s Office of New Drugs. “In this pharmaceutical age, medications are wonderful things. But we have to respect them and be careful with them. I don’t know of any medicines that work 100 percent of the time for everyone, or that are 100 percent safe.”
How can you know you’re taking the right medication in the right way? Start by reading the label and “bring your magnifying glass,” Dr. Kweder says with a laugh. Just as important, she adds, stay in close communication with your doctor or pharmacist.
For example: Before taking any drug, ask if it’s safe to take with your other medications. Drug interactions and double dosing are serious issues.
Here’s one all-too-common example: Say you’re taking extra-strength acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol®) several times a day to relieve arthritis pain. Then you get a cold, so you start taking a cold medication that treats a cough, headache, and sinus congestion.
Going beyond what's safe
Chances are, each dose of cold medication also may contain a full dose of acetaminophen—but you won’t know without checking the list of ingredients. In each case, you’re taking the standard dosage shown on the label, but because you’re taking both drugs at once, you’re overdosing on acetaminophen.
That’s a big deal.
“Taken for an extended time, a double dose of acetaminophen can be very toxic and even lead to liver failure,” Dr. Kweder says. “Acetaminophen overdose is the number one cause of liver transplants in this country.”
Many doctors forget to tell patients if a medicine they prescribe is safe to take with an OTC medicine. So, it’s in your best interest to ask.
What to do
Other protective steps:
Ask your health care provider to review your medications each time you have an appointment. Never omit this step, particularly if you’re seeing more than one doctor.
Confirm what each drug is for, why you’re taking it, and exactly how you should be taking it. And, make sure you really need it. “Many people continue to take a medication they no longer need simply because no one told them to stop,” Dr. Kweder says.
Keep a list of your medications in your wallet and update the information with each new prescription. This is the easiest way to ensure your information is handy whenever you visit the doctor or pharmacy, or have a medical emergency.
Ask about side effects. Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you in advance what to be alert to. For example, your doctor may warn you your blood pressure medication may make you feel a little sluggish the first few weeks you’re taking it. If you’re troubled by the side effects you’re experiencing or aren’t sure about them, you absolutely should call your doctor. “Often, simple questions can be answered over the telephone,” Dr. Kweder says. “But if your medication isn’t working, it probably is worth a visit to the doctor.”
Ask about cost. For many people, a drug’s price tag is a major factor in their ability to keep taking a medication as prescribed. Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s a less-expensive option that can meet your needs. In some cases, a no-cost lifestyle change, such as adopting a healthier diet or getting regular physical activity, can control your condition just as well as a drug.
Make full use of your pharmacist. You should never hesitate to ask a pharmacist a question. That’s what he or she is there for.
Tap into every available resource. For more information about prescription and OTC drugs, go to reliable Web sites such as http://www.medlineplus.gov.
Find out if your health plan offers an information line with a nurse who can answer your questions.
“It really comes down to knowing what your medicines are, how to take them, what the right doses are, and if you can take other medicines with them,” Dr. Kweder says. “This is essential information.”