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More Medications, More Potential Problems

Pills in Hand

Baby Boomers are getting older - and taking more medications as they do. One in six are taking a potentially dangerous combination of drugs and supplements, according to a new study. That's more than double the number putting themselves at risk just five years ago.

"Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin aren't safe for everyone because they can cause severe bleeding in combination with some medications," says Erin Fox, PharmD, director of Drug Information Service for University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics. "Just because you can buy something without a prescription, doesn't mean it is safe to use."

It isn't only the interaction of medications for chronic conditions with supplements and over-the-counter drugs that are causing concern. Short-course antibiotics also are of concern. "Many antibiotics can cause serious drug interactions like heart arrhythmias if combined with chronic medications," says Fox.

Communication is key when it comes to avoiding such potentially dangerous interactions. Everyone involved in prescribing and filling medications should have a complete picture of what the patient is taking. That isn't easy because a patient may not remember all the different medications and supplements they are taking.

"Keep an accurate medication list that includes all medications, supplements and over-the-counter medications," Fox says. "Even if you only take a medication once in a while, it is still important to include on your medication list."

Another important key to avoiding drug interactions is to keep it simple when it comes to filling prescriptions and avoid filling at several different locations. "If the health care team doesn't have an accurate medication list, then the risk of prescribing something that could cause a dangerous interaction increases," says Fox.

And simplicity is important when it comes to taking supplements to help avoid interactions. This is one situation when more is not better. "Patients should also know that there is very little regulation of supplements and there is no guarantee that a supplement bottle contains what it says it does or is effective," says Fox. "They should look for supplements that are 'USP verified.' This means that the supplement has been tested and the contents are accurate."

Of course, patients can't do this alone. After all, they aren't the ones with the prescription pads. Fox says doctors need to take an active role in making sure they have a clear picture of what a patient is taking. "Doctors need to ask patients about supplements and over-the-counter medications when conducting a medication history," she adds. "Also, make sure patients feel comfortable providing their entire list of medications and supplements. Don't let them make a fatal omission."