Health & Medicine

Simple medication errors can cause major problems

Clark Kebodeaux
Clark Kebodeaux Photo provided

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky ranks third highest in rates of death due to drug overdose: 29.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

This is primarily driven by opioid overdose via prescription or illicit drugs, but this statistic represents all examples of drug overdose, including those from common medicines you probably have stocked at home.

Prescription and nonprescription drugs, commonly referred to as over-the-counter medications, play a crucial role in our nation’s health care system. The vast array of OTC drug products that are available to consumers serve to treat many common ailments, from simple aches and pains to dental care.

Medications promote the health of millions of patients, but risks due to inappropriate use can cause unintentional, harmful side effects or drug interactions.

Why is dosage important?

One of the most common examples of a frequently misused drug is acetaminophen, more commonly known as Tylenol. When used at the appropriate dose, acetaminophen can help reduce a fever or improve pain, but too much can cause serious side effects, including liver damage.

Acetaminophen is in many cough and cold products — both prescription and OTC — and people might not be aware that it is in their medications. That can lead to an overdose if you take another product with acetaminophen. Always double-check the ‘drug facts’ label on your OTC medicines for active ingredients, and consult your pharmacist or health care provider to ensure that you avoid using too much medication.

Another common example is medicines for children and infants. Regardless of the product, it is important to always use the measuring device — an oral syringe, a dropper or a dosing cup — that is included with the medication. Many of these products have unique strengths, and using a spoon from home, or an alternate form of measurement, can result in an accidental overdose.

How can I prevent medication errors?

One of the best options is to talk to your pharmacist. Pharmacists are excellent resources for drug information and can help reduce and prevent medication errors. In particular, pharmacists can help you know when and how to take your medications, and their potential side effects, and can identify whether two medications should not be taken together.

What should I do if I accidentally misuse a medication?

If you suspect that you or someone else might have taken a medication incorrectly, call poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222. Each medication might have a different treatment, and there are professionals available to help with each situation.

Clark Kebodeaux is an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science.