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Taking Medications: The Risks
Most of us don't like to take medications. We would prefer to cope with life with our head clear and with no pain. We fear medications and what side effects they may have, and we worry about how medications might interfere with other medications — or even the food we eat.
There are times when medications do help, and we must take them. But it makes good sense to know about what you are taking, how it affects your body, and how one medication interacts with another. You may not have a degree in chemistry, but there is much you can learn. As a knowledgeable person, you can weigh the risks against the benefits and make an educated decision.
There are three basic kinds of medications:
- Prescription medications which only your doctor can give to you.
- Over-the-Counter medications and supplements which anyone can purchase at a drug store or a health food store.
- Natural or Organic medications, which (like over-the-counter medications) can be purchased and used by anyone, more than likely sold at a health food store.
Regardless of where you purchase your medications, those who make and sell them will work hard to convince you that their drug is safe and it can do any one of a number of things: cure a disease, calm us down, help us lose weight, alleviate pain, have a better sexual relationship, or even make us happy. The list is quite endless.
PLEASE NOTE: This article is not a discussion of specific drugs, but rather about the different types, and a strong suggestion that you should always understand the ramifications of choosing to take any drug, no matter what type.
There is an assumption by some people that prescription drugs are the most dangerous of all drugs, that too many people rely on them when they could live without them, that they are way too expensive, and that they are being pushed by "big pharma" and are generally not needed. A recent study in the States, for instance, revealed that "the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most loathed sectors in the United States, sitting alongside big oil and the federal government."
But the reality is that some modern prescription drugs are life-savers to millions of people. There is plenty of evidence of this, including this article from The Seattle Times. Prescription drugs rarely cure a person, but they can and do help to manage symptoms for a variety of conditions. An individual may very well feel that their situation is such that they have no choice but to take the medications their doctor prescribes.
An article by WebMD lists the 10 most important drugs. At the top of the list is penicillin, followed by insulin, smallpox and polio vaccines, ether, morphine, aspirin, birth control pills, and digoxin (for the heart) as well as several others. There are many people alive today because of the discovery of these medicines.
You are your own best "doctor" and you need to educate yourself about the conditions you suffer from — and to make decisions (possibly along with the help of your doctor) about how to treat your condition.
So work through this checklist, every time your doctor suggests you try a new prescription, or every time you wonder if a particular drug might work for you:
Understand your condition. Learn all that you can about the condition or disease you are suffering from. What causes it and what helps it feel better? What non-medical things can you do to alleviate the symptoms?
Know the name of your medication(s). Ask your doctor the name of your prescription — and write it down. When you go to the pharmacist, know what medications you have been prescribed. If you are given a substitute, find out why (usually it's a cheaper drug). When you go to get a refill, check the pills before you leave — is it the same in colour, size, and shape? If it isn't, ask why.
Use your medication ONLY for what it is intended. If the medication is suppose to treat an eye condition, that doesn't mean it will be all right for a headache. Look at the bottle and the pill, identify what it is for, before you swallow.
Use the medication as prescribed. Read the instructions carefully. Know these things: when to take it, whether to take it with or without food, how many times a day, and whether it might interact negatively with another medication you are taking. Other questions you need to know answers to are: What should I do if I forget a dose? Should I take this medication before, during, or after meals? What should the timing be between each dose? What side effects might I have? If I have side effects, when should I contact my doctor or pharmacist? Are there any other medications, food, or activities that I should avoid while using this medication? Where should the medication be stored (for instance, at room temperature or in the fridge)?
You have a headache and it just won't go away. You walk into the nearest pharmacy and ask the pharmacist what you can take for a headache. He points to the aisle where there are a multitude of bottles — aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, local store brands, ASA. The list goes on. Which one is right for you? Without knowing the cause of your headache — anything from a migraine to an allergic reaction — you have to find the drug that will help with the particular condition you are suffering from.
There are many over-the-counter medications and, just like prescription drugs, they can interact badly with other medications and have other serious side effects. With today's internet, however, you can be a lot more careful about what you buy over-the-counter. Although most pharmacists are well-trained and can give you some good advice about medications on their shelves, it is well worth it for you to check out the drug first.
Here are some things to discover BEFORE you purchase or take over-the-counter medications:
The Product Name: It should be clearly printed.
Active ingredients: In other words, what are the therapeutic substances in the medicine? 2
Purpose: There are many purposes: an antihistamine for an allergy, an antacid for an upset stomach, a cough suppressant for a cough, a pain killer, an anti-inflammatory drug.
Uses: What symptoms or diseases does the product claim to treat or prevent?
Warnings: What warnings are on the label? These could include when to use it or when not to use it, how long to take it, when to see a doctor, and possible side effects.
Directions: How much to take, how to take it, how long to take it, and how often to take it. Maximum 24-hour dosage is often given. There are often differences between child and adult dosages.
Other Information: Where to store it, for instance, or interactions with other drugs.
Inactive ingredients: Some of these ingredients may be harmful; you need to know what they are.
Preferably, you should do some research on the product before you go to the store to buy it. But, once you have the product in your hand, be sure to read the label. If you buy it again, read the label again as they sometimes change. You will discover as well that two products may advertise that they do the same thing — yet they don't have the same ingredients.
Finally, although usually mild and relatively uncommon, interactions involving over-the-counter drugs can produce unwanted results or make other medicines you are taking less effective. It is especially important to learn about drug interactions if you're taking more than one drug — whether they be prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, or herbal supplements.
Some drugs can also interact with foods and beverages, as well as with health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.
The Food and Drug Administration provides the following cautions:
If you are taking antihistamines, cough-cold products (which contain dextromethorphan), or drugs that treat sleeplessness, avoid alcohol.
If you are taking sedatives or tranquilizers, do not use drugs that treat sleeplessness.
If you're taking a blood thinner or if you have diabetes or gout, avoid products containing aspirin.
When you have stomach pain, nausea or vomiting, do not use laxatives.
If you are taking a drug for high blood pressure or depression, or if you have heart or thyroid disease, diabetes, or prostate problems, do not use a nasal decongestant.
This is not a complete list. Always read the label! Always ask your doctor or pharmacist, or check the comments that come with the drug.
As well, one of my participants suggested this: BC nurse hotline 1-866-215-4700. "There is a nurse ready to answer questions 24 hours a day and a pharmacist available 5pm to 9am every day — at least there always has been. I haven't used them in the last few months but I have called them many times with questions about medications, etc. and they have been very helpful."
Natural, Herbal, or Organic Medications or Supplements
There is a tendency to think that anything you buy in a Health Food store will be safe because it is "natural" and comes from a plant. However, these herbs and drugs are not tested as rigorously as over-the-counter and prescription drugs are tested. They are still drugs, being used for medicinal purposes, and they can have many of the same properties and side effects as any other type of drug.
Remember: You should follow the same advice regarding the purchase of a "natural" medicine as you do an over-the-counter drug or something your doctor prescribes.
A recent study, discussed in an article on Science Based Medicine, says this about herbal products:
"There are currently no best practices in place for identifying the species of the various ingredients used in herbal products. This is because the diagnostic morphological features of the plants on which the current Linnaean taxonomic system is based cannot typically be assessed from powdered or otherwise processed biomaterials. As a result, the marketplace is prone to contamination and possible product substitution, which dilute the effectiveness of otherwise useful remedies, lowering the perceived value of all related products because of a lack of consumer confidence in them. Herbal product substitution has been documented for many individual medicinal plant species, teas, and ‘nutraceuticals’. Although there is limited research available, the frequency of product mislabeling in herbal products has been estimated at 14% to 33% from previous studies. There are legitimate health concerns for consumers which results in a lack of confidence in safe, high quality herbal products."
What is even more concerning about herbal medicines is a recent study that revealed this: "In an analysis of supplements from Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens, they found that only 21% of the supplements did contain the ingredients listed and that 'most' contained ingredients not included on the label. The resulting response has included furor over the attorney general’s testing methods as well as people claiming that these results support what they knew all along." It is clearly up to the consumers to try to make intelligent choices, but that may be an impossible task.
Take charge of your own health by making sure you know what you are ingesting — whether it be a pill or a food. Learn, research, study, discuss with your doctor or pharmacist. Don't rely on firsthand accounts: "It works for me" does not mean that it will automatically work for you. For instance, I have always reacted strongly to any drug — over-the-counter or prescription or "natural." I never take the recommended dosage for an adult, because it is usually too much and I react badly to it.
I can't stress this enough: Be your own best advocate.
And two final reminders:
Keep your health care providers informed about your medications and dietary supplements (including vitamins and herbals).
Keep the list of your medications with you at all times and let a loved one know. Keep this list in your wallet or purse. Share the list with a family member or friend, or let them know where you keep the list, so that they can help in an emergency.
A very simple rule to follow is this: Know what you are swallowing.
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.