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Taking Medicines

Whether to cure an illness or simply to feel better, Americans use billions of dollars worth of capsules, tablets, ointments, liquids and other forms of drugstore remedies and prescribed medicines.

While medicines are invaluable in helping to relieve symptoms and combat illnesses, their misuse can lead to serious consequences. Studies in this country revealed that at least half of the patients who take prescription medicines fail to do so as instructed by their doctors. And each year, improper use of non-prescription as well as prescription medicines can account for as many as five to 35 percent of all hospital admissions.

This information will provide you with general guidelines on using your medicines safely.

Prescription Medicines
Prescription medicines require a written order from a doctor and can be sold only by licensed pharmacists. Generally more powerful than remedies available without a prescription, prescribed medicines should be handled with extreme care. All prescription medicines are dispensed in containers that are clearly labeled with your name, your doctor's name, the date the prescription was filled, instructions for use, the name of the medicine and the medicine's expiration date.

Non-Prescription Medicines
Also known as over-the-counter drugs (OTC), non-prescription medicines are meant to provide temporary relief of minor symptoms, not to cure or prevent disease. They include common remedies such as aspirin, laxatives and antacids. Although less powerful than prescription medicines, non-prescription medicines can be harmful if taken incorrectly or in combination with prescription medicines. Such drugs should never be used for long periods of time or in amounts greater than what the package instructions advise, since they could hide a condition, minimize the effect of a prescribed medication or cause poisonings.

All non-prescription drug packages contain detailed instructions on what the drug is, what it's meant for, how to use it properly and who should not take it.

Generic Medicines
All medicines have a chemical name, a generic name and a brand name. Aspirin, for example, is the generic name for acetylsalicylic acid, a chemical name that describes aspirin's chemical makeup. Aspirin is also sold under many brand names such as Bufferin, Anacin or Excedrin.

Drug companies that develop new medicines have exclusive rights to produce those medicines for 17 years. After this period, any company can, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, manufacture the chemical equivalent of the brand-name medicine. Generic medicines, in general, cost less because their manufacturers don't have to set prices to recover expensive research and development costs.

Once the FDA approves a generic medicine, it is considered as safe and effective as its brand-name counterpart.

However, generic medicines are not all alike, since their inactive ingredients (the emulsifiers, dyes and fillers that make up the bulk of a medicine) may be different. These different formulations sometimes cause generic medicines to react differently in the body, depending on the patient. Based on your physical condition and medical history, your doctor will determine whether or not your pharmacist may substitute a generic medicine for you. It is important to report all side effects to your doctor.

Drug Interaction
Medicines can sometimes interact with certain foods, diseases and other medications, causing them to become totally ineffective, or cause unpleasant -- even serious -- side effects. Dairy foods, for example, bind to the antibiotic tetracycline and prevent it from being absorbed in the body. Mixing alcohol with a high dosage of Valium can be deadly. Consuming aged and fermented foods, such as Chianti wine or aged cheese, while taking certain mood-altering drugs can increase blood pressure to dangerous levels. Your physician or pharmacist can alert you to side effects and interactions which may be harmful.

Some medicines, including certain tranquilizers, sulfa drugs and diuretics, also cause problems when combined with sun exposure. That interaction/combination may cause people to develop skin rashes or sunburn more easily. In addition, people with diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma or thyroid problems should carefully read the labels of non-prescription medicines before taking them. For example, decongestants may aggravate high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other existing conditions. People on a low-salt or low-sugar diet or who have allergies may be affected by a medication's inactive ingredients which can include sodium or sugars.

It's a good idea to avoid drinking alcoholic beverages while taking any kind of medication. Alcohol acts as a depressant and decreases coordination, alertness and breathing. It can also heighten the effects of certain medicines, such as narcotic pain relievers, psychiatric medications, cold medicines, antihistamines and cough preparations.

Taking Medications Correctly
When taking a medication, always take exactly what your doctor prescribes and no more. If you are using a non-prescription medicine, follow its instructions exactly. You should always inform your doctor if you are, or are planning to take, any non-prescription medicines. Taking any medicine in larger doses or more frequently than recommended can lead to accidental poisoning. Conversely, taking too little of a medicine, skipping a dose or waiting too long between doses can make the medication ineffective.

Be sure to take prescribed medicines for the full length of time as directed by the doctor. Don't be fooled into stopping the medicine just because you start to feel better. Your treatment may not be complete and you could suffer a relapse, reoccurrence or worsening of the original problem.

Never exchange or share a prescription medicine with another person no matter how similar your illnesses may seem. The doctor has prescribed the medicine specifically for your physical condition, age and weight.

Be alert to symptoms of medicine dependence. If you need medication to help get you through the day; if you are increasing the dosage on your own; or taking the medicine automatically without your physician's order, you may be developing an unhealthy dependency on your medications.

If you are worried or uncertain about the medicines you are taking, don't be embarrassed to consult your doctor or pharmacist. Some of the questions you should ask are:

   • What is the name of this medicine; what is it for and what is it supposed to do?
   • What does the medicine look like? What color is it?
   • How long must I take this medicine? Can I stop if my symptoms disappear?
   • What are the side effects? Which ones should I report?
   • How should I take this medicine (before, with or after meals?) Does "take every six hours" include normal sleeping times?
   • Can I stop taking the medication early if the symptoms disappear?
   • Are there any foods, liquids, medications or activities I should avoid while on this medication?
   • Is there an approved generic version of this drug that I can take?
   • What should I do if I miss a dose?
   • What should I expect?

Just as you rely on your doctor or pharmacist for complete information about your medication, they depend on you to supply important information about yourself so they can properly prescribe and dispense medicines to you. Make sure you inform them:

   • If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or allergies
   • If you are taking any medicine prescribed by another physician
   • If you are pregnant, a heavy smoker, or a heavy drinker
   • If you are on a special diet, or are taking vitamins, minerals and/or herbal supplements
   • If you have an unexpected symptom while taking the medicine

Storing Medications
All medicines begin to lose their potency as soon as the containers they are in are opened. With proper storage, however, the medicine's potency can be maintained. Bathroom medicine cabinets and kitchen cabinets are, surprisingly, the worst place to keep medications because the moisture and heat in those rooms can diminish potency. Some medicines may have special storage instructions, but in general, the following guidelines apply:

   • Store medicines in a cool, dry place, out of the reach of children and away from bright light, including areas exposed to sunlight.
   • Store medicines in their original containers which are designed to protect the medicines. Make certain the labels are securely attached.
   • If you use a pill box, don't keep more than one day's supply of medicine in it. Because pill boxes do not seal tightly, medicines stored in them can quickly lose their potency.
   • Remove the cotton filler placed in pill bottles for shipping. Cotton can absorb the active ingredients.
   • Never combine different tablets or capsules in the same containers because medicines may react with one another.
   • Don't keep medicines in the refrigerator, unless it's specified in the instructions. Moisture could affect the potency.
   • Don't keep medicines in the glove compartment of a car or on a windowsill. Heat can diminish potency.
   • Keep medicines out of the reach of children. Most medicines come in containers with child-resistant caps. Adults who have difficulty removing these safety caps can ask their pharmacist for more easily-opened containers, but should take extra precautions to keep medicines locked in cabinets or in other places inaccessible to children.
   • Clean out your medicine chest regularly. Discard medicines that you cannot identify, no longer use or medicines that have expired.
   • Always check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about non-prescription, herbal products or prescription medicines. By adopting a careful, responsible and informed approach to taking your medicine, you can increase the chances that it will work to your best advantage and lead to good health.

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