Many South Africans are not aware that inappropriate use of medication, whether it is prescription or non-prescription, can lead to potentially dangerous health complications.
Teresa Kuschke, acting general manager pharmacy at Netcare’s Primary Care division, which incorporates Medicross and Prime Cure, says that many people have a perception that over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is always safe to take, even in combination with other prescribed medication. What they may not realise, however, is that certain medicine may cause dangerous drug interactions when taken together.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), detrimental responses to medicine taking, known as “adverse drug reactions”, are a leading cause of deaths worldwide. The same study also indicates that 60% of these cases would be preventable with more responsible medicine usage.
The dangers of drug interactions
“It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to take medicine exactly as prescribed by your doctor, and to consult a pharmacist before using any over-the-counter medicine while taking prescription medicine. Mixing medicine, even if it is over-the-counter (OTC) or herbal medication, may result in dangerous drug interactions. In addition, taking inappropriate medicine or taking incorrect dosages of medicine may result in severe side effects and can also lead to accidental overdosing,” observes Kuschke.
She furthermore advises members of the public to read the warning labels on medicines and to ask their doctor or pharmacist about any possible side effects before taking medicine. They should also find out from their healthcare practitioner whether or not any of the medicine they are using may conflict with one another. Taking certain kinds of antibiotics at the same time as cholesterol-lowering medication has, for example, been identified as a possible health risk.
Beware: even over-the-counter medicine can pose certain risks. Kuschke urges South Africans to also show care when taking OTC medicine. Some of the most common health issues that people who misuse OTC medicine experience include headaches, recurring migraines, constipation, nausea, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, athlete’s foot and tooth decay.
“There seems to be a tendency for people to think that the more medicine you take, the quicker you will get better. This simply is not so. It is vital that the correct medicine is taken in the stated dosage and at the right times, without exception.
“When it comes to your health, you should rather be safe than sorry,” says Kuschke. “It should be kept in mind that doctors take all the relevant medical factors into consideration before recommending treatment.
“You should therefore always make sure your healthcare practitioner knows about every prescription or non-prescription medicine you are taking, including herbal remedies, nutritional supplements and daily vitamins.”
Kuschke points out that medical practitioners look to prescribe medicine and dosages that maximise results and minimise side effects. They consequently need a thorough knowledge of the patient’s medical history. This also underscores the importance of not changing your doctor frequently. “Try to find a family practitioner who you trust and who is well aware of your medical background for your day-to-day healthcare needs,” she advises.
Tips for safe medicine use
Kuschke shares the following important tips for safe medicine use:
• Never use prescription medicine that has been illegally dispensed or that has not been prescribed by a medical professional.
• Ask your pharmacist about correct dosages, read the medicine labels and inserts and never deviate from the prescribed usage without consulting your healthcare practitioner.
• Do not use OTC or herbal medicines in conjunction with prescription medicine without discussing it with your doctor or pharmacist first.
• If you experience any side effects or discomfort whatsoever, immediately stop using the medicine and consult your doctor or pharmacist about possible alternatives.
• If you’ve used the OTC medicine for the period recommended on the insert and the symptoms still persist, make an appointment with your doctor. This could be an indication that there is an underlying health issue that is not being addressed correctly.
• Avoid drinking alcohol while you are using medicine, unless your doctor or pharmacist explicitly states that it is safe to do so.
• Return unused medicine to your pharmacist to safely dispose of it. This will ensure that you do not use medication that has expired and that the medicine is safely disposed of so that it won’t have adverse effects on the environment or on human health.
• Follow your doctor’s orders closely and remember to always complete your course of antibiotics or other medication even when you start to feel better.
Medicines and the elderly
Elderly people may be particularly sensitive to medication, and should take special care when using medicines. Senior citizens who are suffering from problems with memory loss should be closely supervised, as they may take medicine at the wrong time or take incorrect dosages.
To extend or improve their quality of life, the majority of senior citizens take at least one form of medicine per day, while an estimated one third take three or more. However, the incorrect use of these drugs may carry serious risks.
“Ultimately, safe use of medication is a team effort. The pharmacists at Netcare and Medicross pharmacies work closely with all the other healthcare professionals who are involved in a patient’s treatment, so that they have a full understanding of the patient’s condition and can offer proper support in the management of their medication. Patients themselves should also take care to ensure that they engage in responsible medicine use.”