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Generations: Always handle medicines with care

Today’s medicines cure infectious diseases, prevent problems from chronic diseases, and alleviate pain for millions of adults. But medicines can also cause harm.

Patients and their families or caregivers can do a number of things to help reduce the risk of harm from medicines.

According to experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, one of the most important things patients can do to keep themselves and their families safe is to learn how to properly take, monitor and store their medications.

• What is medication safety and what are adverse drug events?

Medication safety includes a number of things that patients can do to make sure that they get the most benefit from medications with the least risk of harm. When someone has been harmed by a medication, they have had an adverse drug event.

• Are adverse drug events a big problem?

There are many ways to measure the size of the problem of medication safety. Recent work at the CDC has focused on the short-term, severe problems of medicines taken by people outside of hospital settings. It is estimated that there are more than 700,000 visits to emergency departments for adverse drug events each year in the United States. Nearly 120,000 of these patients need to be hospitalized for further treatment. This is an important patient safety problem, but many of these adverse drug events are preventable.

• Who is at risk for adverse drug events?

Anyone who takes medicines has some risk of a harmful effect. How high that risk is depends on the individual patient’s health, the particular medicines a patient is using, and how patients use their medicines. Nevertheless, national data suggests there are some key risks and risk groups:

• Older adults: Older adults (65 years or older) are also twice as likely as others to come to emergency departments for adverse drug events (more than 177,000 emergency visits each year). Older adults are nearly seven times more likely to be hospitalized after an emergency visit, but most of these hospitalizations are due to just a few drugs known to require careful monitoring to prevent problems.

Common drugs that can require monitoring are blood thinners (e.g. warfarin), diabetes medications (e.g. insulin), seizure medications (e.g. phenytoin) and digoxin (a heart medicine).

• All adults: The death rate for unintentional prescription drug overdoses is highest among middle-aged adults (40-49 years old). In 2004, more than 7,500 Americans died of unintentional overdoses of opioid (or narcotic) analgesics (pain medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone or methadone), more people than from cocaine or heroin.

• What can patients do?

• Know your medicines. Keep a list of the names of your medicines, how much you take (daily dosage), and when you take them (time of day). Include all over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and supplements and herbs. Take this updated list to all your doctor visits.

• Follow the directions. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Don’t take medications prescribed for someone else.

• Ask questions. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist: Why am I taking this medicine? What are the common problems (side effects) to watch out for? What should I do if they occur? When should I stop this medicine? Can I take this medicine with the other medicines on my list?

• Take pain relievers only as directed. If you are taking opioid pain relievers, be sure to tell your doctor about all other medicines you are taking because some medicines, when taken with pain relievers, can cause an adverse drug event, such as an overdose.

• Ask if you need blood testing. If you take any medicines that require special testing, pay particular attention to taking these properly and get regular blood testing. Common medicines than can require monitoring are blood thinners, diabetes, seizure and some heart medications.

Today’s information is provided by Adina Wingate, PCOA’s public relations director, using materials provided by the Centers for Disease Control. Visit online at pcoa.org

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