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When Painkillers Kill

Pain medications can ease suffering — but they can also be deadly. Here's how to be safe

So how do you manage your pain, while still staying safe?

Before leaving the ER, hospital, or doctor's office, ask questions.

What is the name of the medication? How much should I take (dosage and strength)? Is it a long- or short-acting drug? (Long-acting painkillers — including the fentanyl patch, methadone, and morphine sulfate — are typically prescribed for patients who require around-the-clock pain relief.)

Take the medication only as prescribed.

"What often happens is that when a pain medicine isn't working fast enough, people will take another pill," says Vaida. Or they forget they've already taken a pill and take another, or they put on a second patch, unaware that the first one is still stuck somewhere on their body.

Be cautious when first taking a new medication.

Many fatal overdoses happen when people have just started taking pain medication, when their bodies aren't used to it.

Ask your pharmacist about the risk of drug interactions.

Methadone can be fatal when used with certain antidepressants, antibiotics, cardiac medicines, and alcohol. Doctors also advise getting all of your medications from the same pharmacy, which can track possible drug interactions.

Never take someone else's painkillers.

A dose prescribed for one person can be fatal to another, particularly if that second person is taking other medications.

Keep a pain/medication diary.

Write down when you take your medicine, how much you take, and what your pain levels are. This will help you and your doctor track how well your medications are working.

In 2010, Alvie Mosley settled his lawsuit against the doctors who treated his wife, leaving the case against the hospital and pharmacists pending. "Mable didn't need all that medication," Alvie says. "There's just no excuse for it."

You may also like: How to create a personal medication record.

Dosage source: modified from FDA prescribing information.

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