“Prescription and over-the-counter medications, when used properly and taken on the advice of your doctor or in counsel with your pharmacist, can go a long way in easing pain, relieving symptoms, fighting infections, and even preventing illness,” Mark Heelon, PharmD, medication safety specialist, Baystate Medical Center Inpatient Pharmacy, said.
“But when in the wrong hands and not prescribed by a doctor, prescription drugs, including painkillers and anti-depressants, can result in addiction, serious side effects, and even death,” he added.
October is “Talk About Prescriptions Month” and prescription drug abuse is the nation‘s fastest-growing drug problem. An estimated 20 percent of people in the U.S. have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons, such as to experience a “high feeling.” As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic.
But, while prescription drug abuse is featured prominently in the news today, prescription “misuse” doesn’t get an equal share of the attention, Heelon noted.
“Misuse of prescription drugs is, for the most part, not done intentionally. It can be as simple as someone taking a larger dosage in hopes of alleviating their symptoms quicker, or someone offering a friend one of their sleeping pills because a personal problem is keeping them awake at night,” Heelon said.
First and foremost in protecting yourself against the possible misuse of prescription medications is to make a list of all your medications, to continually make sure the list it is up-to-date, and to carry the list with you at all times.
“Remember to list all the medications you currently take, both prescription and over-the-counter, as well as any vitamins or herbal supplements,” Heelon said.
“This is especially important when seeing a new doctor or visiting a hospital’s Emergency Department, so doctors won’t prescribe a medication you are already taking or one which would result in a dangerous drug interaction,” he added.
Also, as a safety-check, it is a good idea to have all of your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy where computer software programs are used to alert pharmacists to any potential problems before filling your prescription, noted the Baystate Medical Center pharmacist.
“Most people think over-the-counter medications are harmless since there is no need to get a doctor’s prescription for them. And, most are. But, it’s still a good idea to check with your pharmacist because some over-the-counter medications taken along with a prescription drug may render that drug less efficient,” Heelon said.
“Also, it’s a good idea to read the ingredients on the package. For example, many over-the-counter medications contain Tylenol, which can damage your liver if taken in excess. Recently, Johnson & Johnson lowered the recommended daily dosage of its Extra Strength Tylenol due to overdose concerns,” he added.
Adherence to medications is yet another concern in the misuse of prescription medications.
“Some people may not be good at remembering to take their medications as prescribed, or they may stop taking them because they feel better or think they aren’t working. Stopping a medication cold turkey can be harmful, and should only be done in consultation with your doctor. Also, if you miss a dose, don’t take two the next time to make up for it without talking to your pharmacist or doctor first,” Heelon said.
For safety, and for potency sake, Heelon cautioned against misusing a medication by keeping a newly-filled prescription in a hot or cold car for too long.
“Humidity can break down the ingredients in some drugs affecting their efficacy. I’ve also seen some medications left in a hot car that have actually melted together,” Heelon said.
And, preventing misuse actually begins before the patient even leave the pharmacy.
“Check to make sure you have received the correct medicine and dosage, as well as asking your pharmacist any questions you may have about the drug and its instructions for use,” Heelon said.
There are some cases, however, where drug misuse can lead to drug abuse.
“Taking a larger dose of some medications could result in an unexpected high, leading to abuse when a person continues to take a prescription drug after it is no longer needed just to recreate and maintain that high feeling,” Heelon said.
To further prevent any possible prescription drug abuse, Heelon said people should always keep their prescription medications in a locked medicine cabinet or box.
“You may think that you know your children, who can be inquisitive and risk takers as they grow older, and there’s no reason to give them an opportunity to experiment. And, the same goes for their friends, who might be visiting your home,” Heelon said.
Those who haven’t been keeping their medications under lock and key, Heelon noted it’s also a good idea to keep track of medicine by keeping count of the number of pills in a bottle to be sure none are missing.
“And, when disposing of old or unused prescription drugs, place them in a non-see-through container and mix them into kitty litter, coffee grounds, or even dirt so kids won’t want to dig them out and use them,” Heelon said.
“While some people may flush them down the toilet or empty them into the sink, more and more experts are discouraging that tactic because of the possible harmful effects to the environment,” he added.
For additional information on medication safety, visit www.macoalition.org to read the brochure, “Your Role in Safe Medication Use.”