Be Smart About Prescription Addiction: What You Don’t Know May Kill You

Be Smart About Prescription Addiction: What You Don’t Know May Kill You

How long has it been since you’ve done a complete inventory of all the prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs you have in your home? Do you even know what you have? Some of those old containers of pills, solutions, drops and creams may be long past their expiration date. Chances are, however, you’ve got bigger problems lurking in your medicine cabinet. Without knowing it, you may be endangering yourself or others in your family. It’s time to be smart about prescription addiction. In this case, what you don’t know may very well kill you.

No One Starts Out Trying to Abuse Drugs

Unless someone is deliberately suicidal, they generally don’t start out trying to abuse drugs. Drug abuse, dependence and addiction occur over time. And, no, it isn’t just illegal drugs that cause addiction. Millions of Americans are addicted to one or more prescription drugs. What typically happens is you have some medical problem and you go to your doctor to find out what it is and what can be done about it. Let’s say you fall and hurt your low back. This is common enough and certainly something we can all relate to. The doctor asks some questions such as how long you’ve had the condition, what brought it on, where the pain hurts, when does it hurt most, what type of pain is it, and other questions. He then performs a physical examination and orders X-rays. Since you’re in pain, he gives you a prescription for a painkiller, an opiate.

Opiates are narcotics, and because they have a high potential for addiction, they are generally prescribed for only 1 to 2 weeks. Depending on the level of pain, your doctor may prescribe varying strengths of opiate. Some of the more common are:

• Codeine (Tylenol-3)
• Fentanyl (Actiq)
• Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Norco, Panlor)
• Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
• Morphine (MS Contin, Oramorph SR, Avinza)
• Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, Percolone)
• Propoxyphene (Darvocet-N)

You take the medication for the prescribed period, but find that you still have pain. You may go back to the same doctor or see another one and repeat the same procedure. What you’re looking for is a new prescription for another painkiller. The problem with this is that you are contributing to your own addiction.

According to WebMD, opiates are not intended to be taken until all the pain goes away. Their intended use is just to get patients through the most severe pain. By continuing to take opiates, you risk dependence and addiction. Long-term abuse of opiates leads to potentially severe withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop taking them.

What happens after you’ve been taking opiates, or some other prescription drug with a high potential for addiction, and you realize you’re hooked? You certainly didn’t want to become dependent on the drug, but once you are, you’re in for a difficult time getting off your dependence.

One Plus More Doesn’t Mean Better

If you have a nagging pain that sometimes becomes acute and you have a prescription from your doctor in the medicine cabinet, it’s tempting to pop more than one pill to make the pain go away faster. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. The truth is, however, that taking more than the recommended dose does not make it better. In fact, it could lead to complications that may be uncomfortable, dangerous, or potentially life threatening.

Watch Out for Drug Interactions
Many Americans, especially the elderly, take multiple prescription medications on a daily basis. It’s not uncommon for a diabetic woman in her 80s, who also suffers from heart disease, high blood pressure and early Alzheimer’s, to be taking insulin, a blood thinner, blood pressure medication and several more medications. Recent studies show that the average person over 65 takes between two and seven prescription medications daily.

Some people who regularly take numerous medications have a system to ensure they take their pills in the right order and at the right time. This may be a pill container with pills portioned out for each day, or pill bottles lined up on the kitchen counter in the order they are to be taken, bottles numbered in sequence, ribbons tied around some, markings made with multi-colored felt tip pens on others. In short, it’s a mixed bag. The trouble is, mistakes happen all the time.

Grandma forgets that she already took her heart medicine this morning, so she takes it again, along with her lunch and a few more medications she usually takes at that time. Grandpa complains that somebody stole his medication because he knows he didn’t take it and the pills don’t add up right. He takes his medicine a second time. Both of these examples illustrate what can happen with the elderly due to forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or other problems associated with aging.

The risk for drug interactions, along with food/drug interactions and side effects, increases with such mistakes. Some medications, when taken out of sequence or in combination with other medications, may not work or may result in dangerous side effects. It’s an unfortunate fact that most adverse drug reactions reported each year involve people older than 60.

Never Mix Drugs and Alcohol

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Despite printed warnings on prescription labels, warnings on TV advertisements for medications, numerous newspaper, TV and Internet stories about the dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol, people still do it.

According to Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines, a publication from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), mixing alcohol with medications puts you at risk for dangerous reactions. Here are just a few of the many conditions for which medications are commonly prescribed and the interactions of those drugs with alcohol.

• Allergies/colds/flu – drowsiness, dizziness, increased risk for overdose
• Angina (chest pain), coronary heart disease – rapid heartbeat, sudden changes in blood pressure, dizziness, fainting
• Blood clots – occasional drinking may lead to internal bleeding; heavier drinking may cause bleeding or have the opposite effect, resulting in blood clots, strokes or heart attacks
• Diabetes – abnormally low blood sugar levels, nausea, vomiting, headache, rapid heartbeat, sudden changes in blood pressure
• High blood pressure – dizziness, drowsiness, fainting, heart problems (such as arrhythmia, changes in the heart’s regular heartbeat
• Muscle pain – drowsiness, dizziness, increased risk of seizures, increased risk for overdose, memory problems, impaired motor control, slowed or difficulty breathing

Know who is taking what

How many individuals are in your household? How many of them are regularly taking prescription medications? Who dispenses the medication? Do you rely on the individual to self dispense, or do you make it a practice to remind them or put the medicine out for them to take?

The reason these questions are important is that it is so easy to lose track of who’s taking what and for what condition. Without some system of oversight, there are bound to be dosing errors, medication not taken at the proper times or at all, or medicines taken together that shouldn’t be. Someone has to take responsibility for this. Who is it in your house?

If there are only two adults, say a husband and wife, you’d think that each person should be able to handle their own medication schedule. That’s true to a point. But what often happens is that one person is usually the one to order and pick up prescription refills so that ongoing prescriptions don’t run out. The other person, who may be taking the medication, just follows his or her daily routine of taking it. It would be logical for the one who orders the medications to somehow keep tabs on all the medications in the household. In other words, institute a tracking system for who’s taking what.

Take an inventory, marking what medications are for what condition, how often the medicine is to be taken, who takes it, when it should be taken, and anything else pertinent. Once this is in place, it becomes easier to notice gaps, or something out of the ordinary.

Knowing what medications your loved one is taking will also help you to be able to quickly spot a potential drug interaction – with another drug and/or food. And, if some new medications are introduced, keep a close eye for any indications of side effects.

Mind Expiration Dates

Never permit outdated medications to remain in the medicine cabinet or anywhere else. While some medications may be effective for some period of time after their expiration date, it’s not a good idea to take the chance. This is especially true for life-saving medicines for heart conditions, diabetes, and other conditions.

Go through the house today and toss out all expired medications. If some of these are still necessary, contact your doctor to get a new prescription. Write the expiration date of the newly-obtained medication on the tracking list along with other pertinent information.

Ensure Safety Precautions

While we’re on the subject of inventory and expiration dates, here’s another important tip. If you have young children or teenagers in the house, or if your elderly parents or other relatives live with you, take appropriate safety precautions for all medications. Keep them locked up in a medicine cabinet.

Does this sound extreme? You may be surprised to know that teenagers say the easiest way to obtain prescription medications – that they take for non-medical purposes – is to simply raid their parents’ medicine cabinet or one at the home of their friends. Eager to experiment, test the bounds, fit in with the crowd, and take risks, adolescents and teens gravitate toward this “open candy store” pharmacopeia. Alcohol is often involved and the results can be catastrophic. Mixing prescription drugs used for non-medical purposes with alcohol can lead to impaired driving, overdose, seizures, increased heartbeat, increased blood pressure, stroke, unconsciousness, coma and death.

Ask for Pharmacist Consult

Whenever you get a new prescription, ask for a consult with the pharmacist. Inquire what potential side effects this new drug has, and how it may interact with other medication you or someone else you’re getting the prescription for takes. Of course, the best practice is to have all your prescription drugs filled at the same pharmacy. If you do most of your ongoing prescriptions through a mail-order pharmacy, contact their customer service department and speak with a pharmacist to ask the appropriate questions.

End Date

Surely none of us wants to go on taking medication forever. Even if we have an ongoing condition, the possibility exists that the doctor can reduce the strength or frequency of a prescription. He or she may even recommend we stop taking it at a certain point.

Make it a practice to ask your doctor how long you’ll need to take this medication. Bring in your list of medicines that you currently take and go through each one with the doctor. This is especially important if you’ve obtained prescriptions at other doctors. Your primary doctor should advise you on the protocol for keeping, reducing, changing or quitting medications. This may be done in consult with the original prescribing doctor.

Take Charge of your Health

There’s no better way to keep on top of what to expect than to be proactive. It’s up to you to become knowledgeable about the medicines you take, how they may affect you, how they can interact with other prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, food and/or alcohol. It’s also important that you know your body and be alert to signs that something’s wrong.

Don’t just take medication like it’s a vitamin. Medicines are very powerful. They can, in some instances, and when taken correctly, mean the difference between life and death. When taken without regard for the dangers, or abused and taken to the point of dependence and addiction, they can also mean the difference between life and death – in this case, unintended.

Know that addiction to prescription drugs can easily sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention to the signs. Take as little medication as you need for the shortest period of time. If you find that you do get into trouble, feeling a dependence on the prescription drug, seek medical attention and counseling.

Bottom line: be smart about prescription addiction. The life you save may be your own (or that of your loved one).


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