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"According to the Institute of Medicine, at least 1.5 million preventable adverse-drug reactions occur in the United States each year," notes Virginia E. White, Pharm. D., FCSHP, senior vice president and chief clinical officer of Health Net Pharmaceutical Services, the pharmacy benefit management subsidiary of Health Net, Inc. She adds, "Seniors need to be particularly careful, as they take more medication than any other age group. In fact, a study reported in the July 2008 edition of the Annals of Pharmacotherapy found that one out of every 10 elderly individuals is admitted to the hospital due to an adverse-drug reaction."
"While medications are obviously designed to help rather than harm you," White explains, "serious complications -- even death -- can result if certain precautions aren't taken." To help avoid such complications, White suggests taking the following steps:
Make a list. Write down the names of all medications -- both prescription and OTC -- as well as vitamins, dietary supplements or herbal remedies, that you're currently taking. Be sure to additionally note dosage levels. Bring this list to all doctor appointments. In case of an emergency, keep a copy of the list in your wallet; one also should be given to a family member or friend.
Talk before taking. Add OTC products to your medication schedule only after talking to your physician or pharmacist. Many OTC medications -- including cold remedies, pain relievers, sleep aids, antacids, and even mineral supplements -- can cause adverse reactions or interact negatively with prescription medications.
Don't wait! Notify your doctor immediately of any adverse symptoms -- stomach upset, diarrhea, difficulty urinating, constipation, forgetfulness, skin irritation, dizziness -- that you experience, especially after starting any new medication.
Read carefully. Make sure you know each medication's purpose, dosage, recommended time to take, requirements relative to food, and preferred storage method. Also be aware of potential side effects and what to do if they occur.
Use reminder systems. If you're taking multiple medications, use of a reminder system -- such as a daily pillbox, calendar, or wall chart -- is recommended.
Take only as needed. Some medications are designed to address specific symptoms and are only for short-term use; consequently, if symptoms persist, notify your health care provider promptly.
Tell all. Make sure that your primary care physician is aware of all medications that have been prescribed by other providers, such as specialists; similarly, inform all providers regarding medications prescribed by your primary care doctor.
Limit pharmacies. Try to fill as many prescriptions as possible at the same pharmacy or chain; limiting the number of pharmacies reduces the potential for prescription mishaps.
Make sure they know. If you're admitted to a hospital or nursing facility, or if you're receiving treatment in an emergency room, make sure that attending health professionals know your medical history and medication schedule. Also, request a full explanation, preferably in writing, of any change made to your medications.
Beware of "drowsy" medications. Some medications cause drowsiness, and drowsiness can result in injury. Examples of such medications include: Atarax; Benadryl; Darvocet-N; Darvon; Doxepin; Fiorcet; Fiorinal; Flexeril; Robaxin; Soma and Valium. If you take any of these medications or their generic equivalent, ask your physician if there are safer alternatives.
Store safely, toss safely
"While proper consumption of prescription and other medications tops the safety-priority list, attention also should be paid to proper storage and disposal of medications," says White. Toward that end, she recommends:
Store medications in a cool, dry spot free of humidity; unless a bathroom is well ventilated, it should not serve as a storage space, and that includes medicine cabinets.
Place medications in a childproofed cabinet or drawer if youngsters live in the home.
Keep your medications on a separate shelf or in a separate drawer from those of other family members.
Secure bottle lids tightly and keep medications in their original containers.
Remove cotton from inside pill bottles; it can absorb moisture and adversely affect medication.
Mix unused, unneeded or expired medications with undesirable substances such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter, then put in sealed bags and throw in trash.
Do not flush prescription medications down the toilet unless the label instructions indicate it is safe to do so.
Take advantage of community pharmaceutical disposal programs or community solid-waste programs.
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