Medical Care

10 Tips for Taking Medications Safely

Editor’s note: On January 17th 2017, we posted an article with information that caregivers for older people need to know about the medications loved ones take. Now we are offering this article with advice that everyone needs to know in order to avoid serious complications and interactions when taking medications.

–        Storing medications: Make sure medications are kept in a cool dry place and not on the window ledge. Keeping medications where sunlight will hit them will vastly weaken the potency of the drug.

–        Taking too much: Overdoses are the number one cause of medication fatalities and the most common medication error, according to an FDA study about drug errors. Watch out for loved ones who may be overusing prescription medications. Signs of prescription drug overdose include over-sedation, mood swings, and running out of medication early.

–        Confusing one medication with another: Prescription medications frequently have names that are easy to mx up. Zantac for heartburn and Zyrtec for allergies. Lamictal for epilepsy and Lamisil for fungal infection. Celebrex for arthritis and Celexa for depression. Patients, particularly seniors with dementia, also can mix up pills when they look superficially similar. A daily pill-minder can be a big help. Sorting daily medications in advance can prevent the wrong medication from being taken in a moment of confusion.

–        Medicine interactions: Some medications were never meant to be mixed. With 40 percent of seniors taking five or more prescriptions and many of them receiving these prescriptions from multiple specialists, sometimes patients are inadvertently prescribed medications or take medications which are dangerous when mixed. Consult with the patient’s primary care physician and/or pharmacists to be sure.

–        Food and drug interactions: While it’s common knowledge that certain medications shouldn’t be taken at the same time, the issue of foods interacting with drugs is less commonly discussed. For example, anticoagulants like Coumadin or blood-thinning statins can be rendered ineffective when a patient eats foods high in vitamin K. Grapefruit juice can cause potentially dangerous interactions with at least 85 medications because of the way the liver metabolizes it.

–        Wrong route of administration: 16 percent of medication errors involve using the wrong route of administration. This could involve, for example, swallowing a tablet that was intended to be taken sublingually (Absorbed on the tongue), or as an anal suppository. (Yes, this happens!). Swallowing a liquid intended for injection or use as a nasal spray is another example.

–        Mixing alcohol with medications: There are plenty of drugs that come with a bright orange warning sticker attached telling you not to drink alcohol when taking them.  But maybe the sticker fell off, or wasn’t attached in the first place or the patient just really wants a cocktail and figures it will be ok “just this once.” Alcohol mixed with a long list of painkillers, sedatives and other medications can quickly become a deadly combination. Always check with your doctor.

–        Double-dosing by taking a brand-name drug and the generic at the same time: With insurance companies mandating the use of generic drugs whenever possible, it’s all too common for patients to get confused and end up with bottles of a brand-name drug and generic version at the same time without even realizing it.

–        Taking prescription drugs and over-the-counter or alternative medications without knowing how they interact: It’s easy to think that something you grab off the shelf at your local grocery story must be safe, but some of the most common OTC drugs can cause serious reactions. Always check with your physician or pharmacist.

–        Old medications: Some people stop taking their medications for a period of time for a number of reasons and then start up again. Always check to make sure the medications are not expired.

Kurt A. Kazanowski, MS, RN, CHE, owner of Homewatch CareGivers in Plymouth, Michigan, is a seasoned health care executive with over three decades of experience. and

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