Exercise Caution With All Medications and Supplements

Every year, 300,000 adverse reactions to prescription drugs are reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) MedWatch hotline. This number presumably represents just a small fraction of all such incidents.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, considering the tens of millions of prescriptions written annually for hundreds of medications. Moreover, cost pressures from managed care companies may allow doctors and pharmacists less time to discuss possible side effects or harmful interactions with patients.

Then there’s the more subtle impact of the direct marketing of pharmaceuticals to patients. Until fairly recently, drug manufacturers almost exclusively targeted physicians. Now they aim directly at patients, who are inundated with glossy print and television campaigns on behalf of the latest cure-all. The physician’s role as a knowledgeable filter of information is diminished.

The key risk factor for an adverse reaction is the use of three or more different medicines daily. Patients must be certain that every prescribing physician is aware of all other medications the patient is taking—including over-the-counter medications.

You should not take any vitamin supplement at the same time as a prescription medication. The vitamins and minerals in these supplements may interact negatively with certain medications.

These are the most common signs of an adverse reaction to medication:

  • Skin rash
  • Easy bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Severe nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Mental confusion
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Abnormal lab results (as determined by a physician)
  • Abnormal heartbeat (as determined by a physician)

The patient who experiences any of these symptoms, even if mild, should immediately call the prescribing physician.

Adverse reactions to prescription medications are not the only danger for consumers. You also need to be vigilant with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, which can cause dangerous side effects (drowsiness, principally) even at the recommended dosage.

The following advice and guidelines provided by Consumer Reports can help prevent untoward incidents with these everyday products:

  • With any medication, read the label carefully, follow the dosage recommendations carefully, report adverse reactions to your physician immediately.
  • The elderly do not need as high a dosage as younger people to achieve the same benefit. Instead, they should often use lower dosages. Consult your physician.
  • Cold remedies containing multiple ingredients to treat multiple symptoms are not recommended, because you are unable to control the dosage level of each particular ingredient. The all-in-one approach is convenient, but try to “separate” your symptoms and use single-ingredient products directed at each one.
  • Medication remains fully potent for only about a year, once the container is opened, and assuming it is stored according to directions. Note the date on which the package was opened and throw out all remaining pills after one year—regardless of the expiration date on the label.
  • You may be surprised to learn that manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements do not need FDA approval before producing or selling their products. Neither the safety nor the efficacy of such popular herbs as St. John’s Wort, ginseng and ginkgo biloba is warranted by any authority. Consumers should be wary of vague, ambiguous and unproven health claims.

Though the hazards are real, patients and consumers can experience the restorative benefits of properly handled medications—prescription and over-the-counter—by staying mindful of their safe, effective use. Always maintain a cautious approach to unproved supplements.