Health Information

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 4 adults out of 5 adults in the U.S. take at least 1 medicine each week. More than 1 adult in 3 adults takes 5 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 the right way. But some medicines can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bleeding, irregular heartbeats, and other side effects in some cases.

Research estimates that more than 700,000 people go to emergency rooms each year because of harmful medicine. Accidental overdoses and allergic reactions are the top problems. Older adults are more likely to have trouble than younger people. In people older than 65, insulin for diabetes, the blood-thinner warfarin, and the heart medicines aspirin and clopidogrel cause about half of the emergency visits.

Know side effects

Experts say the message for people is that they should know the possible side effects of the medicines they're taking. It's also important to know if any of their medicines require special monitoring. And they have to make sure they get the monitoring they 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. Acetaminophen is one of the most frequently used drugs in the U.S. The warnings note that it is linked to liver damage in people who use high doses. Also in people who take more than one product that contains acetaminophen, or who drink alcohol regularly. NSAIDs may increase the risk for stomach bleeding in some people.

Consider some other factors if you take prescription or OTC products. Although one medicine alone can cause side effects, 2 or more may interact with each other and cause harmful reactions. Even food and beverages can change the way your body handles medications. For example, alcohol can strengthen the effects of some medicines. Food can slow or speed the soaking up of some medicines by the body.

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

Safe in the short term

Most people who take prescription and over-the-counter medicines for a short period of 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 doses of all your medicines.

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

  • 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. What should you do if those side effects strike you?

  • 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 improve the quality of your life.