Prescription Drug Side Effects: Take As Directed

Nearly 30% of us stop taking our medicines before we should. Why playing doctor can be a dangerous game.

By Irene S. Levine | PhD from Reader's Digest | September 2008

Chart: The Dangers of Stopping Suddenly

Cindy McCain was eating brunch with friends in Phoenix when she suddenly couldn’t speak. All that came out was gibberish. Rushed to the hospital, McCain, a businesswoman and the wife of Senator John McCain, had suffered a stroke. She believes her brain bled after she’d stopped taking blood pressure medication. She was feeling fine in the months before the stroke, so she took the pills “only once in a while.” More than four years later, McCain, now 54, has recovered, with only some short-term memory loss and difficulty grasping things with her right hand. She has changed her diet, she exercises, and, most important, she takes blood pressure medication-regularly.

Risks of Stopping Prescription Medicationscomstock.comMany of us don't think twice about stopping medications before prescriptions run out.

Many of us don’t think twice about ditching our medicines before the prescriptions run out. We dislike the side effects, we feel better, we don’t feel better, we can’t afford the pills, we simply forget. But the risks of stopping suddenly are real. And many doctors don’t understand these risks any better than we do. “How to go off medicines isn’t routinely studied and remains more of an art than a science,” says Jack E. Fincham, PhD, a pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy. Here are some common reasons for stopping a medicine and what you should know before you do.

“I Was Feeling Fine”

Seven-year-old Nicolas Gerlock’s strep throat was being treated with ten days of antibiotics. But after eight days, the boy’s fever and soreness were gone, and he was balking at taking more medicine. “I shouldn’t have given in,” says his mother, Jennifer Gerlock of Frederick, Maryland. She shelved the medicine, but a few days later, Nick’s voice was raspy, and the fever spiked again. Eight days after Nick started a second round of antibiotics, Gerlock figured the bug had to be dead, and her little complainer wasn’t making things easy. So she stopped the medication early again-and the infection resurged. “We are on our third round of antibiotics, and we are finishing this one,” she says.

Bottom line – Feeling better does not mean that all the bacteria have been killed or that an infection has been eradicated. Partially treated, strep can affect the heart and kidneys, for instance. Stopping too soon may also contribute to the rising problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

People with chronic conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes often stop taking pills because they feel no symptoms to begin with. Always ask your doctor how long you need to take a prescribed medication.

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