Making the Most of Your Medications

Are side effects from your prescription medication making you feel worse? Are foods, beverages or other drugs sabotaging your medical treatment? Here's what you must know to protect yourself.

Medications can cure what ails you, but they can also cause unpleasant or harmful side effects. There's no way to predict how your body will react to certain chemicals even if you take medicine exactly as directed. Even foods and other medications you may be taking can interfere can interfere with a drug's effectiveness. Any chronic illnesses you have, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease, can also affect your body's ability to handle some drugs. So before you pop any kind of pill, it's important to know exactly what you're taking and what reactions you may need to watch out for.

Side Effects: A Drug's Alter Ego

All medications may produce undesired symptoms (called side effects), such as nausea, drowsiness or dry mouth. Not everyone using a particular drug will experience such consequences, and, often, annoying side effects diminish when the medication is taken for a while. When your physician prescribes medicine, ask which potential side effects are harmless and which may be dangerous. Note: Always contact your physician before you stop taking a prescribed medication.

Drug Interactions

Remember that medications are substances that can interact with other chemicals in your body. One drug can increase or decrease the effects or potency of another, or an adverse reaction may occur when a drug is combined with other medications. Birth control pills, for example, are less effective if you are taking an antibiotic at the same time. The following types of drugs commonly interact with other medications: antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antidiabetic drugs, blood thinners, decongestants, high-blood pressure medications and sedatives.

Additionally, certain foods or beverages can interfere with drugs as well. For instance, antidepressants known as MAO inhibitors (Marplan, Nardil and Parnate) are dangerous if you eat or drink anything containing tyramine (such as red wine, cheese and beer) while you are taking them.

The foods most likely to interfere with medications include dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, salt and fruit juices. Always ask your physician or pharmacist if the drug you've been prescribed can interact with any foods, liquids, other medications, or even herbal remedies you may be taking.

Questions to Ask

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 60 percent of all patients cannot identify their own medicines. The APA recommends you ask your physician the following questions before you take any medication:
  • What is the name of the medication and what is it supposed to do? Since you may see more than one doctor, always inform each one of all the medications you take to help ensure you are not given drugs that interact dangerously when combined or that neutralize one another. Also, keep a list of all your medications and dosages on you at all times in case of an emergency.
  • When and how do I take it? You must take your medication correctly for it to have its intended effect. For instance, ask if you should take the medication on an empty or full stomach, how many times a day to take it and at what intervals.
  • For how long should I take it? Serious problems may result from not taking all your medication or by continuing to take it for too long. Your doctor will indicate the length of time on your prescription order, so make sure you follow those instructions.
  • Does this medication contain anything that could cause an allergic reaction? Tell your doctor if you're allergic to anything. Another safeguard: have all your prescriptions filled at the same drugstore so that the pharmacist has a complete record of the medications you are taking and can help you avoid dangerous drug interactions.
  • Should I avoid alcohol, other medications, foods and/or activities while using this drug? Substances like alcohol, other drugs, foods or even sun exposure can be harmful when combined with certain medications.
  • Should I expect any side effects? What should I do if any occur?
  • What should I do if I forget to take my medication? It is best to know the answer to this question before it happens because the decision to take a missed dose depends on the drug. Never take a double dose without consulting your doctor.
  • Is it safe for me to become pregnant or breast-feed while taking this drug? Some medications can cause birth defects when taken early in pregnancy, while others can pass through the mother's system into breast milk.
  • Is there a generic version of this drug? Though not always available or suitable, a generic equivalent often costs 30 to 50 percent less than the brand name.
  • How should I store my medications? They may lose their effectiveness if stored incorrectly. For example, the "medicine cabinet" in the bathroom is actually one of the worst places to store drugs because the moisture and heat can damage them.

Antibiotics: Misuse Is Making Them Ineffective

When penicillin was first used in the 1940's, it was considered a miracle drug because it could cure previously deadly diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. But bacteria have been fighting back and today antibiotic-resistant strains are on the rise. The resurgence of tuberculosis (TB) as a public health threat has highlighted this problem.

Antibiotics have lost much of their disease-fighting punch because of misuse. You can take an active role in preventing the further development of drug-resistant bacteria by taking two simple precautions:
  • Don't press your doctor for an antibiotic when the problem is a viral infection, such as a cold or flu. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses and such misuse only helps the evolution of life-threatening 'superbugs'.
  • When antibiotics are prescribed for a bacterial infection, make sure you take the pills on schedule and finish all of them, even if your symptoms have abated. Just because you feel better doesn't mean that the harmful bacteria that caused the infection have been eradicated. Stopping treatment too soon can leave some bacteria behind that may become resistant to the antibiotic you were taking.

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