Each year in the United States, accidents and errors involving medication result in 700,000 trips to the emergency room. But, fortunately, all you need to handle your prescription drugs safely is a healthy dose of education.
“The mishandling of medication is a huge national issue,” says Douglas Hackenyos, Clinical Pharmacy Specialist at Tufts Medical Center. “Fortunately, most problems can be avoided by following directions that are on the label, listening to health care professionals and taking some simple steps.” He offers these important tips:
Cap It Off:
Despite the use of childproof caps, the number one cause of emergency visits regarding medication in children is they find and drink or eat drugs on their own, without supervision. Never leave children alone with medicine and be sure to close containers tightly and store away from a child’s reach. Also, write down the poison control center’s number (see next page) and keep it handy—on your refrigerator or bulletin board.
Drink Up, But Smart:
Most medications are best taken with plenty of water, unless otherwise noted on the label. Certain other beverages can have an effect on the ways medications are absorbed or broken down by the body. For example, grapefruit juice may increase potency of a number of drugs including popular cholesterol medications, potentially causing unwanted side effects. Fruit juice may decrease the absorption of a number of medicines, including the allergy drug fexofenadine (Allegra). The calcium in milk can block the effectiveness of some thyroid medications and antibiotics, so these should be spaced out whenever possible. In addition, some therapies need to be taken on a full or an empty stomach. Hackenyos says important guidance will be listed on the label, so read it and follow it carefully. And if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist.
Ask About What Comes Naturally:
Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any herbal supplements. While these may seem harmless because they are advertised as “all natural,” some can be potent and may impact how other medications work in your body. St. John’s Wort, which is often taken to treat depression, for example, can interfere with blood thinners and a number of other common drugs.
A Hot (and Cold) Tip:
Don’t keep medication in a car, which may heat up when closed up on a warm day or in a bathroom where moisture and heat could disintegrate tablets. And if the label says “Refrigerate,” make sure you do. Hackenyos says storing medicines at improper temperatures can change the effectiveness and safety of your medications.
Lock It Up:
With the opioid crisis killing four people in the Commonwealth each day, be particularly careful with prescription painkillers. Drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet, Fentanyl, Codeine and Vicodin are targets for thieves looking to abuse them or sell them on the street. Spend a few dollars at your local pharmacy for a locked-box and keep painkillers under lock and key.
Out With The Old:
Be sure to dispose of any medication that is out of date. Antibiotics, for example, work well for the right types of bacterial infections but they can be harmful or lead to bacterial resistance if used inappropriately. In fact, the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) warns 100,000 people are treated each year in the emergency room for reactions to antibiotics. Hackenyos advises patients to take antibiotics as recommended on the label and if there is an unused portion, to get rid of it.
Safely disposing of medication is essential, as some drugs can be harmful (or even fatal) to some people. Patricia Healey, a Lead Certified Pharmacy Technician at Tufts MC, refers patients to the Drug Enforcement Administration website for proper drug disposal (www.dea.gov.) Many medicines can be mixed with dirt, coffee grounds or kitty litter, placed in a zip lock bag and thrown in the trash. Be sure to scratch out the personal information on any labels before tossing the container. Also, most police departments have drop boxes for expired medications. For a list, visit www.mass.gov/dph and search “drop box.” If you have questions about proper disposal, ask your pharmacist.