How is your pill box looking these days? Organized by day and capsule color, or a mixed bag of pharmaceuticals that you sort through and eyeball carefully for morning, noon and night dosages? It all gets to be a bit much some days, but there’s a good reason for your pills. Or so we like to think.
Prescription medications are a necessary part of modern life, a miracle of modern science. When they are used correctly, they can be life-saving wonders, capable of treating or curing diseases which were at one time considered death sentences.
Case in point, before Canadian surgeon Dr. Frederick Banting developed insulin in 1922, diabetes was a fatal disease. Now it can be controlled with blood sugar monitoring and insulin, along with a regimented diet and exercise. HIV, thanks to drug therapy, is now a condition people can live with, and blood thinners and anti-hypertensive drugs give hope to those with cardiovascular issues.
Medication risks and side effects
But many drugs can have serious side effects. A frightening fact that you may not be aware of is that different drugs can actually work against each other, making you sicker.
Research from Yale and Oregon State University shed light on how dangerous and common these interactions are.
This is not an issue which only affects a limited number of people; millions of people are in danger of these drugs counteracting each other. Currently, almost three out of four older Americans have multiple chronic health conditions and over 20 percent of them are treated with medications that work against each other. Yes, the percentage is that high!
Competing medications can suppress the effectiveness of the other drug, or cause serious side effects. That means that more than nine million Americans are treated with drugs that could be causing more harm than good.
The research, carried out with support from the National Institutes of Health, involved 5,815 adults, aged 65 and older, between 2007 and 2009. The analysis included a sample of nationally representative older adults, both male and female. The researchers used Medicare claims to identify the 14 most common chronic conditions treated with at least one medication.
Of the 27 medication classes they identified as part of the study, 55.5 percent recommended for one of the 14 common conditions. In other words, there’s a good chance that your meds could conflict – and do you more harm.
Treating one disease at a time
How did this dangerous problem emerge? Most drugs are designed to focus on one disease at a time, clinically tested and proven effective for treating the condition. Most doctors also treat patients the same way, looking for which drug addresses a single disease or health concern.
The problem is the multiple health concerns of one patient and the handful of possibly competing pills prescribed to treat the lot. Diabetes is now common in people with cardiovascular disease, for example. As we get older, more chronic health conditions can develop. Many people no longer have a single health concern that requires treatment, they have many.
Basically, we are treating too many conditions with too many drugs. And the interactions between drugs now add an additional danger to taking prescription medications, building on common problems, such as self-medication, not following the proper dosages and confusing the medications. So with all the advances of modern medicine, treatment has turned into a pharmaceutical minefield.
Understanding adverse drug reactions
An adverse drug reaction (ADR) is an injury caused by taking a medication. ADRs may occur following a single dose or prolonged administration of a drug or result from the combination of two or more drugs.
Here are just some of the chronic health conditions which have drug pairings that can negatively affect each other: hypertension and osteoarthritis, hypertension and diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes and coronary artery disease, hypertension and depression.
These chronic health conditions affect millions of older Americans. They are not rare conditions that only a limited number of people experience. They tend to be more common in older individuals, putting them at the highest risk for the negative interactions.
To make matters worse, there may be an even greater number of drug combinations that we do not yet know are dangerous. Conflicting medication is a young field of research, without a great deal of funding – who would want to fund a study to potentially find shortfalls in its own manufactured drugs? So, Big Pharma rolls right along, flooding the market with new medications that could possibly conflict (but that’s not its problem!).
An example of negative drug interactions
Let me show you an example of how these negative interactions work: Imagine a patient who has both coronary heart disease and COPD. Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat heart disease, but those same drugs can cause airway resistance that worsens the COPD and causes serious difficulties with breathing. There is hope, though. Several types of beta blockers are available that do not cause the negative interaction. However, this information is not widely known because of a lack of education and awareness. Physicians often stay with the most commonly used and cost effective versions.
But more research is underway to identify and avoid these problematic interactions between treatments.
Tips to avoid possible side effects from medication
Although medications are created to help us, they can come with many unfortunate side effects. The most common side effects include diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach and drowsiness. Although these are not life-threatening, they can be quite annoying and still make you feel quite sick. Here are some tips to help you prevent possible side effects from medications.
- Always talk to your doctor or pharmacists about the other medications you are taking in case of any interactions.
- Discuss any past problems or bad medication reactions you may have had with your doctor or pharmacist.
- Always read the prescription label and follow directions – for example, if it indicates to take the medication with a meal, ensure you do so.
- Document any side effects you experience and report them to your doctor or pharmacist.
- Don’t mix alcohol with medications.
- Always take medications as directed – don’t stop them early or take them for too long, unless directed.
Full disclosure of all medications, please!
There are steps you can take if you are taking medications for multiple chronic health conditions. Yes, there are some important things you can do. First, make sure that your doctor and pharmacist are aware of all of the medications you are currently taking. If they do not know the full list of medications, they can’t spot any possible interactions.
Second, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist if there are any known negative interactions between the medications you are taking. This is especially true if new symptoms arise after you begin a new medication. Why not play it as safe as you can?
We can make staying healthy and active a priority as we age, working to avoid developing the common and chronic health conditions and beat the odds. If we eat clean, whole foods (and cook more!) and go easy on the drive-thru window meals and snacks, drink more water, boost our activity level – committing to healthy lifestyle habits, we’re less likely to develop chronic conditions. We can steer clear of drugs with negative interactions.
It takes effort and patience, but what we do for our health on a daily basis has a huge impact. As science progresses, study after study point to how critically important a healthy diet and an active lifestyle are to a full and vibrant life.
While prescription medications can do wonders for our health, they are not a substitute for good health.
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