Minimize medicine risk: prevent medication interactions

You can play a role in preventing medication errors and misuse

Many of us are prescribed more than one medication, or drug, at a time. In fact, many medicines can work well together to help improve your condition. Other medicines may not work as well together and can even cause harmful drug interactions when used together.

Drug interactions can result in too much or too little drug in the body, cause unwanted side effects, or cause a drug to be ineffective. Keep in mind that a medicine can also interact with another prescribed medication, over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements or vitamins. There are even interactions that can occur between certain drugs and certain foods and drinks (often, alcohol).

Not all drug interactions are alike. Some are minor, with little impact on your health. Others are moderate and may require an adjustment to your drug regimen to minimize the impact of the interaction. Still others are more serious, and you may be advised to avoid the use of the two medicines together and an alternate medication may be prescribed.

Examples of drug interactions

  • Sometimes when two drugs interact, the overall effect of one or both of the drugs may be greater than desired. For example, both aspirin and blood-thinners like warfarin or Coumadin—used to protect against heart attack—help to prevent blood clots from forming. Using these medications together, however, may cause excessive bleeding.
  • Other times, the overall effect of one or both of the drugs may be less than desired. For example, certain 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. For example, ferrous sulfate (iron supplements) 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 medicine may stay in your system longer.
  • Alcoholic beverages can interact with many types of medicine and can be particularly dangerous to use with stimulants, sedatives, sleeping pills and prescription painkillers. For example, both prescription pain relievers and alcohol slow breathing. Taking too much of these together at the same time can cause someone to literally stop breathing.

Did you know that alcohol interacts with more than 150 medications?

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. For example, alcohol can interact with medications that depress the central nervous system, which include some sleep medications, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines, seizure medications and others. Similarly, some medications prescribed for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease also 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

  1. Make sure that all of your healthcare professionals know all the medicines you are taking, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbal supplements. Many of us go to more than one healthcare provider, so 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 to share with your health professionals at your appointments. At least once a year, bring all of your medicines and supplements with you to your healthcare professional. Bringing in your medicines can help you and your doctor talk about them and find out if there are any potential interactions. It can also help your doctor keep your records up to date, which can help you get better quality care.
  2. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist the following questions before taking a new medication:
    • Can I take it with other the other medicines I am 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?
  3. Use drug interaction checkers. There are many free online tools available that you can use to do a drug-drug interaction screening of the medicines you take. Some examples include: drugs.com and rxlist.com. Make sure you enter all of your medicines, including prescription, over-the-counter, vitamins, dietary supplements and herbal remedies. If you find a drug interaction on one of these sites, you should not stop taking your medicine, but do discuss it with your healthcare provider.
  4. Thoroughly read the labels of all over-the-counter and prescription medicines you take. Look specifically for the “Warnings” section on the labels of over-the-counter medicines. Often, known drug-drug interactions are specifically noted on the printed materials, or labeling, that accompany prescription and OTC medicines and dietary supplements.
  5. Use one pharmacy for all of your family’s prescription needs so that all of your medications are on record in a central location, especially if you take medicines prescribed by a number of different healthcare professionals and specialists. Your pharmacy can crosscheck for potential interactions when new medications are prescribed, or if you have a question about an OTC product you want to purchase.