Use Your Medicines 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 and improve your health. They can even save your life.

We use more medicines, supplements, and herbal therapies today than ever. A survey found that 4 out of 5 adults in the U.S. take at least one medicine each week. More than 1 in 3 adults takes five or more medicines.

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

But medicine can have a downside. Most of them are safe when you take them as they are prescribed. But some medicines can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bleeding, irregular heartbeats, and other side effects in some cases. Antibiotics, for instance, are responsible for 1 in 6 emergency room (ER) visits for harmful drug events.

More than 1.3 million people go to the ER each year because of medicine problems and reactions. Accidental overdoses and allergic reactions are the top problems. Older adults are more likely to have trouble than younger people.

The following medicines are the cause for about half of ER visits in people older than 65:

  • Blood-thinner warfarin and the newer direct-acting blood-thinners taken by mouth (oral anticoagulants)

  • Heart medicines such as aspirin and clopidogrel

  • Insulin for diabetes 

  • Seizure medicine

  • Opioids for pain

Know the side effects

It’s important to know the possible side effects of the medicines you're taking. It's also important to know if any of your medicines need special monitoring. And make sure you get the monitoring you need.

Prescription medicines 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) like aspirin and ibuprofen. NSAIDs may increase the risk of stomach bleeding in some people. Acetaminophen is one of the most frequently used medicines in the U.S. The warnings note that it's linked to liver damage in people who:

  • Take high doses

  • Take more than one product that contains acetaminophen

  • Drink alcohol regularly

  • Already have liver disease

Consider some other factors if you take prescription or OTC products. Although one medicine alone can cause side effects, two or more may interact with each other and cause harmful reactions. Even food and drinks can change the way your body handles medicines. For instance, alcohol can strengthen the effects of some medicines. Food can slow or speed the effects of some medicines. But there's no need to give up medicines. Just be aware of the possible interactions.

Safe in the short term

Most people who take prescription and OTC medicines for a short time can use them safely. But they should also be aware that just because their healthcare provider prescribes medicine, 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 medicines as safe as possible:

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

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

  • If possible, have one healthcare provider manage all your medicines. Tell your healthcare provider about all the OTC products you take, too.

  • Ask your healthcare provider what side effects your medicines can cause and what you should you do if you have side effects. 

  • Keep a current list of medicines, vitamins, supplements, and OTC medicines you take. Share it with all your healthcare providers or with emergency workers.

  • Use one pharmacy so your pharmacist can track your medicines and spot possible interactions.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before you stop or add medicines.

Managing your medicines 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 it can improve your quality of life.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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