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Prescriptions: Know Your Medications

Armen Hareyan's picture

Prescription Medication

High cholesterol, diabetes, allergies, acid reflux, headaches, pain, arthritis, hair loss, menopause, cancer, anemia and, of course, erectile dysfunction all are topics for advertisements in the paper and on TV. If an advertiser mentions in the ad what the drug is used to treat, the Food and Drug Administration requires the ad to include the more common side effects and warnings known about the drug. Is that a good way to learn about the drug? Not really.

Ask people what the side effects of cholesterol-reducing medications are and they are likely to answer, "liver disease," since the ads mention testing the liver in the warnings. What the ads do not have time to say is that liver injury from cholesterol-lowering medications is exceedingly rare while heart, brain and circulatory injury from cholesterol is very common so the benefit of lowering cholesterol far outweighs any risk.

Practicing physicians will admit they have had patients stop taking medications or take them incorrectly on the basis of adverse effects they anticipated might happen. With media reports on medical errors and drug recalls, it's difficult for the average consumer to get any perspective on the issue of benefit vs. risk for prescription medications.

People are living longer and healthier lives thanks to medications for diseases that had inadequate treatment in the past. However, using medications properly is as important as having the right drug prescribed. In order to use a medication correctly and get its full benefit, it is important to remember the three R's for safe medication use:

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Risk: Every medication, prescription and nonprescription, has risks as well as benefits. Discuss these with the doctor prescribing them or a family physician if prescribed by a specialist. Even if the medication alone has low risk, the possibility of an interaction with another medication has to be considered. The more medications a person takes, the greater the chance of an interaction, although many interactions do not have any clinical significance.

Respect: Properly used, many of today's medications are life-saving or life-enhancing. It is important to understand and appreciate the benefits of these medications.

Responsibility: Although the health-care professionals who treat people must make good choices and provide them with the information they need to use the medication properly, it still is their personal responsibility to get educated about their medications. When in doubt, ask the doctor, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, pharmacist or other health-care professional to provide the needed facts about the medication.

It is vital to know and remember the name of the medication and what it is for; how to take it and for how long; whether any food, drink or other medications or activities should be avoided while taking it; what side effects could occur and what to do about them; if it is compatible with other medications being taken; and whether there is any written material to which to refer. It also is reasonable to ask the prescriber why this medication was prescribed as opposed to another and whether the benefit outweighs the risks.

For people who would rather avoid medications, the good news is that many medical conditions can be treated by lifestyle changes: regular, vigorous exercise; achieving a normal weight; smoking cessation; proper, balanced diet; and adequate rest. Some people who are genetically predisposed to problems such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol may be able to take fewer medications and lower doses by these lifestyle changes even if they can not entirely avoid drug treatment.

An individual's health is his or her own responsibility. By working with physicians, pharmacists and other health-care professionals, people can have healthier, better lives aided by, rather than threatened by, medications.