Cathy Nguyen, PharmD, is a staff pharmacist at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: I hear a lot about people overdosing on prescription medication. How could this happen and how can someone avoid this happening to them?
Answer: When taken appropriately, some combinations of prescription medications may be safe. For moderate to severe pain for example, taking a short-acting pain-killer hydrocodone (Vicodin) for break-through pain in addition to long-acting oxycodone (OxyContin) is appropriate.
However, when pain-killers, anti-anxiety medications, and sleeping medications are taken in excess or all at once, the side effect of this combination can slow down the central nervous system causing sleepiness, weakness, confusion, a slower heart rate, and/or difficulty breathing. Without immediate emergency medical help, this drug cocktail can be fatal.
Sometimes taking medications as prescribed could be harmful, especially when different drugs are prescribed by different doctors. Also mixing alcohol with drugs can be potentially deadly. Alcohol can slow the breakdown of some medications by the liver, resulting in a higher level of the drug in the body.
So how do you know which drugs, foods, drinks could interact with your current medications? Which drug combinations are safe, and which are not?
Here are helpful hints to prevent a medication mishap:
- Have your primary care physician keep track of all your medical care. Communicate your progress with your physician to ensure proper prescribing and monitoring of your progress.
- Have your prescriptions filled with the same pharmacy when possible so that drug-interaction checking can occur.
- Talk to your pharmacist or physician when getting a new prescription. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as why the medication is being prescribed, if you don’t know, or how alcohol affects the drug.
- Most importantly, always make sure your doctors and pharmacy are aware of all medications you are taking. Create a list of current medications to carry with you to medical appointments and new pharmacies, including prescription meds, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, herbals, and dietary supplements.
In the end, be diligent in your own health care, and always take the time to learn about the proper uses, potential interactions, and adverse effects. When it comes to medications, no question is too small to ask.