Your personal role in preventing medication interactions

Many of us are prescribed more than one medication, or drug, at a time. Many medicines can work together and improve your condition. Other combinations should be avoided and can cause harmful drug interactions. Drug interactions can put too much or too little drug in the body, cause unwanted side effects, or cause a drug to be ineffective. Interactions can occur between prescription medications, OTC products, herbal supplements and vitamins. Many medications can interact with certain foods and drinks, primarily alcohol. Not all drug interactions have the same magnitude. Some are minor, with little impact on your health. Moderate interactions may require an adjustment to your drug regimen to lessen their impact. More serious interactions may lead to your being advised to avoid taking the two medicines together. An alternate medication may be prescribed.

Examples of drug interactions

  • When two drugs interact, the overall effect of one or both of the drugs may be increased. As an example, aspirin and blood-thinners like warfarin or Coumadin protect against heart attack by preventing the formation of blood clots. Taken together, the combination may cause excessive bleeding
  • Other times, the effect of one or both of the drugs may be decreased. For example, some antacids can prevent certain medicines (such as antibiotics, blood- thinners and heart medications) from being absorbed into the blood stream. If this happens, the medicine may not work as well—or may not work at all.
  • Vitamins and minerals also have the potential to interact with medications you’re taking. Iron supplements like ferrous sulfate can hinder the effects of some commonly used antibiotics. Certain foods, like grapefruit juice, can prevent the body from breaking down some medicines, which means the drug may stay in your system longer.
  • Alcoholic beverages can interact with many types of medicine and can be particularly dangerous if used with stimulants, sedatives, sleeping pills and prescription painkillers. Prescription pain relievers and alcohol slow breathing. Taking too much of these together at the same time can cause someone to literally stop breathing.

Alcohol: A Primary Culprit

Alcohol can cause moderate to serious, and in some cases even fatal, interactions with more than 150 medications, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Alcohol can interact with central nervous system depressant medications like sleep medications, anti-anxiety, seizure medications and others.

Similarly, some medications prescribed for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease can interact adversely with alcohol.

If you have certain health conditions or take certain medications, you may need to drink less or not at all. Ask your health care professional for guidance.

Drug interactions can have serious consequences and should be reported to your healthcare provider. The good news is, drug interactions are preventable by following a few important steps.

5 tips to avoid drug interactions

  • Make sure that all of your healthcare professionals know all the medicines you are taking: prescription, OTC, dietary and herbal supplements.
  • Many of us have more than one healthcare provider. It is important to keep all of them informed if you are starting a new medication.
  • Keep an updated list of the medicines you take and share it with your health professionals at each appointments.
  • Once a year, bring all of your medicines and supplements to your healthcare professional. This will stimulate you and your doctor to talk about them, and assist in identifying any potential interactions. It will help your doctor update your records. This can lead to your receiving better quality care.
  • When prescribed a new medication, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist the following questions before taking the new prescription:
    • Can I take it with other medicines I am currently taking?
    • Should I avoid certain foods, beverages or other products?
    • What are possible drug interaction signs I should know about?
    • How will the drug work in my body?
  • Learn about drug interaction checkers. These free online tools will help you do a drug-drug interaction screening of the medicines you take. Some sites include: drugs.com and rxlist.com.
  • Enter all the types of medications your are currently taking on the site. If a drug interaction “pops” up, DO NOT STOP taking the medicine on your own: DO DISCUSS THIS INFORMATION with your healthcare provider.
  • Thoroughly read the labels on all types of medications you take.
  • Search specifically the “Warnings” section on the labels of OTC medicines.
  • Significant drug-drug interactions may specifically be mentioned in printed materials, or labeling, that accompany prescription and OTC medicine/dietary supplements.
  • Use one pharmacy for all of your family’s prescription needs so that all the medication records are in a central location.
  • This is vital if your medications are prescribed by more than a single provider or specialist.
  • Your pharmacist can crosscheck for potential interactions when new medications are prescribed, or if you have a question about an OTC product you want to purchase.

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