Not understanding medication dangers
The number of home medication errors that resulted in calls to Poison Control doubled over a 13-year study period, according to recent research, and that's only the mistakes that were phoned in. Luckily, most of those mistakes weren't life-threatening, but they can be: One-third of the medication errors in the study resulted in hospitalization. The first step to avoiding these mistakes is awareness of how serious they can be. And know the over-the-counter medications you're using all wrong.
Taking too high a dose
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Even too much Tylenol can cause serious liver damage, according to the FDA. (This is exactly what, and how much, medication to take when you have a bad headache.) "If you take a dose that's too high, you may have an increased chance of side effects—for example, increased drowsiness from pain medication or bleeding from too much anticoagulant, such as Warfarin [Coumadin]—due to having too much of the medication in your body," says Barbara Young, PharmD, MHA, editor of consumer medical information for the American Society of Heath-System Pharmacists' (ASHP) AHFS Drug Information resource.
Taking meds too often
A Boston University study found that 15 percent of those who use NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like Advil or Aleve exceed the recommended dose in a one-week period, which can lead to serious side effects like intestinal bleeding and even heart attacks. (Check out the proven ways to manage chronic pain without medication.) For prescription meds, it's likewise important to stick to the dosing times to avoid overtaxing your body. "Several mechanisms to remove the drug from the body usually involve the liver or kidneys, or both, so if you have problems with either, your doctor may tell you to take a lower dose or take your medication less frequently," Young says.
Taking too low a dose or too infrequently
If you don't take enough of your medication, you also put your health at risk. For example, one of the things you can do to prevent deep vein thrombosis, a deadly blood clot in your leg, is to keep up your proper dosing of blood thinner, if that's been prescribed to you. "The body metabolizes a drug at a certain predicted rate, so taking them on the prescribed schedule is important to maintain this consistent level," Young says. "Think of a bucket with a small hole in the bottom—if you want to maintain a certain level of water you must add a certain amount, or dose, at certain intervals." If you add too little or wait too long, the water level will fall too low. (Here are some other things you can do to prevent DVT.)
Taking meds with—or without—food
The directions on the Rx are not just suggestions. "For some medications, food, or certain types of food, will affect how the drug is absorbed from the stomach into the body," Young says. Some may be absorbed too slowly or not as fully with food, such as the osteoporosis med Fosamax or the thyroid drug Synthroid. So, take them on an empty stomach or with a certain period of time before you eat again. "On the other hand, some medications may irritate the stomach, such as NSAIDs including ibuprofen, and are best taken with food to minimize any irritation," Young says. Read the label or ask your pharmacist if you should take your medication with or without food.
Not avoiding specific foods
Even if you take your meds with a meal, you might not realize you should avoid some foods. "Certain antibiotics should not be taken with calcium-containing food or OTC drugs, which will affect how they are absorbed by the body," says Dave Walker, RPh, Medical Advisory Board member, MedShadow Foundation. "Calcium can actually inactivate antibiotics, including tetracycline and doxycycline." Drugs that are affected by a high-fat meal include Viagra and Lunesta, Young says. Plus, "the metabolism of several medications, including statins, is affected by the enzymes in grapefruit juice," Walker says. Ask your pharmacist if there are any food interactions to avoid with your medication. These are the foods you should never, ever eat with certain medications.
Mixing meds inappropriately
Your medication could also be making you sick. It could be because you're inadvertently counteracting or doubling up on meds—and this includes OTC drugs, vitamins, and herbal supplements. "The interaction can increase or decrease the effectiveness of the medicines, cause unexpected side effects, or increase the risk of known side effects," says Michael J. Gaunt, PharmD, Medication Safety Analyst, Editor, ISMP Medication Safety Alert! Community/Ambulatory Care Edition at the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP). For example, some medications should not be taken at the same time as antacids because the absorption may be changed by the reduction in stomach acid, Young says. Don't miss these other silent signs your medications are making you sick.
Not getting a med schedule from your doctor
The FDA advises making sure your doctor or pharmacist knows everything you take in order to come up with an approved list for when to take each drug, supplement, and vitamin. "If you take a number of medications, consult with your pharmacist to find the best schedule for you to take them," Young says. "If you group your medications to take at similar times, it will improve your chances of taking your medications consistently and on time." Just make sure your health-care provider is on board with the plan. Here are more super-important questions to ask before you take prescription medications.
Not understanding your prescription label
Don't be embarrassed if you're confused—research from Northwestern has shown that prescription labels are notoriously hard to understand due to awkward wording. "Just being able to read the label doesn't mean you'll be able to interpret it," the study's lead author, Michael Wolf, PhD, MPH, said in a press release. "What is 'twice daily'? The most common misinterpretation was to take two pills a day," instead of four. Another example is "three times a day"—does that mean breakfast, lunch, and dinner; or evenly spaced over 24 hours? Make sure you confirm everything with the pharmacist.
Not knowing what your medication is for
You should be aware of what each drug is for when you start taking it. "Having an understanding of the condition or disease that the medication is being used to treat will help you also understand the importance of taking it," Young says. "Often medications may be used to treat more than one condition, so know why you are taking the medication, especially when you talk to other doctors or health-care professionals." Here's why your pharmacist probably knows more about your health than your doctor.