When Should I Worry About...

Medication 101: Are We Taking Too Much?

June 22, 2021 - Sheshe Giddens

The miracle of modern medicine has transformed our lives for the better. The proliferation of medications available has allowed us to imagine what was once unthinkable by treating what was once untreatable, while also extending our lifespan and improving our quality of life.

From chewing willow bark to extract the salicin-rich juice to its refined successor, aspirin, we developed many medications from what our ancestors derived from our first pharmacy — nature.

While some prefer to stick to what they consider natural remedies by taking herbal supplements and homeopathic medicine to try to cure what ails them, these remedies are not harmless; and, when mixed with traditional over-the-counter and prescription medications, can have interactions that can cause undesirable and, possibly dangerous, side effects.

Medications: the good, the bad and the ugly

Even common aspirin, touted as a wonder drug, can have its drawbacks. Aspirin has multiple uses — ranging from providing pain relief to reducing the risk for heart attack and stroke in people with cardiovascular disease. On the downside, it also interferes with what protects the stomach lining, which can lead to stomach bleeding.

Medication side effects and the potential dangers from taking too much means that, despite the numerous benefits gained from taking them, we must remember to treat medications with a certain degree of respect. We can't simply pop pills without considering potential side effects and interactions with other medicines.

More medications, more potential problems

The vast array of advertisements touting the benefits of various drugs — and the widespread availability of those drugs — has led to a phenomenon known as polypharmacy, which is defined as the use of five or more medications to treat one or more health conditions.

"A lot of patients have multiple chronic medical issues, especially our elderly patients. It's not uncommon for them to be on five to 10 medications, and, occasionally, more than10 medications, says Andrew Mulder, PharmD, a clinical pharmacy specialist for internal medicine at Houston Methodist. Mulder works with patients while in the hospital.

"Polypharmacy is a growing issue with the number of medications and health problems increasing. Taking so many medications has been shown to increase patients' risk for hospitalization as well as increase the risk of falling and even mortality."

According to the Lown Institute, between 2020 and 2030, polypharmacy will result in approximately 4.6 million hospitalizations at a cost of $62 billion, and the premature death of 150,000 older Americans.

A primary care physician can help you manage medication(s)

Due to the growing number of medications taken, a combination of those prescribed by multiple specialists and over-the-counter ones, it has become more critical than ever for patients to get help with managing it all, which is one of the main benefits of having a primary care physician (PCP).

"Any doctor you see should be well versed in the medicine prescribed to you and the reasons they have been prescribed, while monitoring you for potential side effects. When someone is seeing multiple specialists, think of the primary care physician as the quarterback, whose role is to review and agree with what the specialists are doing and what medicines they are prescribing," says Dr. Ali Sawal, a primary care physician with Houston Methodist Primary Care Group.

"Also, the PCP will make sure that the medicines are not having any interactions, you are tolerating them well and they're doing what they are meant to do. Especially since patients may only see their specialists once every three to six months, or once a year. So, the PCP is there to help fill in the gaps and see the patient a little bit more routinely."

Tips for managing your medications and taking medications safely

Here are a few tips to help you manage your medications and take them safely:

Get a primary care physician

Establishing a relationship with a PCP will not only help you manage your medications, but will also give you a partner to team up with to stay on top of your health. A PCP can provide annual physicals and health screenings, monitor chronic health conditions, and refer you to specialists, when appropriate.

Keep it simple

Use one pharmacy or, at least, one pharmacy chain, if possible. This will allow the pharmacist to review all your prescriptions and alert you and your prescribing doctor about any possible problems or interactions.

Keep track of your medications

Although your doctor and pharmacist should know what you are taking, it is primarily your responsibility to know what medications have been prescribed to you and why. Don't assume that your doctor and pharmacist can see all your records and medications.

"Keep an active list of medications on you at all times. And understand why you're taking each one. Keep it in your wallet or purse, or on your phone. You should be able to say, 'Hey, I'm taking this medicine for high blood pressure, this one for cholesterol and I'm taking this for migraines.' That's something everyone should know, especially if you are taking multiple medications," says Dr. Sawal.

"Having a list of medications is especially important if patients are taking over-the-counter medications or supplements that they may not consider to be medications. They may not be informing their doctors or even their pharmacists that they're taking them, and there's no record of them if we aren't told. Some of these can have serious interactions with a lot of medications," says Mulder.

Also, along with the list of prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements you take and their doses, don't forget to include topicals, sprays and other forms of medications on your list. This information should be shared with every one of your health care providers.

Visit Food and Drug Administration's My Medicine Record to download and fill out a helpful form to help you keep track and take charge of your health.

Properly dispose of expired and unused medications

Expired medications may or may not be safe to take. But, why take the risk? Visit the Food and Drug Administration's website to learn where and how to dispose of unused medicines.

Don't take someone else's medications

It may seem harmless to take antibiotics or pain medication prescribed to someone else, but it's not. Besides potential interactions with your other medications, there is also the risk that the medication may be harmful due to a medical condition you might have, or it may not work for the problem that afflicts you. So, don't try to diagnose and medicate yourself. Go see your doctor.

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