Whenever someone takes a new medication, their expectations are generally the same: they’re taking this to make them feel better, not expecting that their treatment will lead to more harm.
However, as many individuals have figured out, even common pharmaceuticals aren’t without risks; even the most innocuous offenders can do severe damage to someone’s body and mind simply because they’ve made a few simple medication mistakes. The science of medicine is complicated, and what works for one symptom may actually worsen another. Sadly, medication mistakes are more common than most people realize. Culturally, we’ve learned to trust medications despite their side effects and without considering alternatives.
You might be surprised to discover how often medication errors actually occur. These can include wrongly used over-the-counter drugs, taking leftover prescribed medications, misunderstanding what drugs do or how they work, taking more than was prescribed, combining drugs that shouldn’t be combined, stopping them too abruptly, and even forgetting to take them. Because these mistakes aren’t always dangerous, (though some are), the vast majority go unreported.
Unfortunately, medication errors in children can have more devastating consequences. A study released in the mid-2010s,1 for instance, shined a grim light on how frequently young children are subjected to medication mistakes without their caregivers realizing it. This study discovered that approximately every eight minutes, an American child under the age of 6 experiences some form of medication error. This is a troubling number. If these mistakes can be so easily made with the children we’re caring for, imagine how easy it is for an adult to make a careless medication mistake with their own dosage.
The risk of medication errors grows higher when we consider how many opportunities for mistakes to occur throughout the process of prescribing and consuming pharmaceuticals. More specifically, medication mistakes can occur at the ordering, prescribing, documenting, transcribing, dispensing, administering, and monitoring phases of the process.2
This also considers that medical professionals can promote several common medication mistakes as they work to treat their patients. Of course, that can be an even more jarring revelation because it seems easy to trust our physicians. Nonetheless, doctors and nurses are humans; they can make mistakes as they administer and monitor your treatment.
Further, due to what has been called a “just culture,” many doctors are hesitant to acknowledge and report medication errors. This is the case for many reasons,3 including the potential damage to a health care provider’s reputation, the potential loss of their license, or serious legal repercussions (even prison) if the mistake is severe (and preventable) enough.
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However, everyday medication mishaps can occur in many ways. Ultimately, each of these errors can be traced back to a simple idea applicable to a good portion of the American public: The unfortunate reality is that we don’t know that much about the medications we’re taking.
After individuals have been on a strict regimen of a particular medication for several years, they may not have the incentive to do their own reading about the drugs they have been taking. It can be easy to take the doctor’s word for it, and as long as we don’t experience any severe side effects, we continue to engage in common errors.
Naturally, this is more concerning when individuals suffer from severe or chronic health conditions and have several daily medications prescribed. It’s essential to consider just how dangerous these outcomes can be. For instance, certain medication mistakes can lead to severe repercussions on your health, including (but not limited to) an unexpected visit to the emergency room. Whenever medication mistakes turn into long-term habits, the risk becomes more severe.
Common Medication Mistakes That Could Make You Sick
We’ve established that many everyday medication mistakes are common and easy to make. In particular, numerous home medication mistakes4 are common pitfalls. What are some of those typical errors? And, how severe a risk do they pose to an individual’s health and well-being?
Each of the following medication mistakes can put the user’s health at risk, even if the mistakes have been made on a single occasion. Of course, if these errors are repeated over longer periods and become habits, the patient will be put at an additional risk — and they could be making themselves even sicker without realizing it.
1. You Don’t Understand the Dangers or Risks of Medications
No matter how common, no drug is entirely innocuous. Any medication, whether prescription or over the counter, carries the possibility of unique risks to users. It is always a good idea to be actively aware of these dangers before taking a new medication, which often isn’t how we approach pharmaceutical use. Rather, it can seem easy to take medications without reading about their effects — even if that reading is only to uncover the potential dangers, should something go awry.
The more informed you are, the easier it is to steer clear of particular dangers.
This can be particularly true of antibiotics. Some think it’s harmless to stop taking these drugs once symptoms abate. There is also a tendency in some to take leftover antibiotics — without a doctor’s care. Both of these situations seem innocuous because there are no immediate problems, but they can cause antibiotic resistance.5 This means, when someone requires antibiotics, they don’t work like they should, putting them in danger.
2. Taking Medications Too Frequently
If you’re currently taking over-the-counter medications, this is an especially common occurrence — and, even if a doctor is monitoring you, it still has the potential to occur because your health care provider has prescribed an ill-advised dosage or because you’re actively going against the dosing your doctor has recommended.
This statistic may not seem alarmingly high, but keep in mind that overconsumption of NSAIDs can lead to extremely serious complications. These complications could include heart attacks and intestinal bleeding; both can be lethal. Many NSAID users are unwittingly putting themselves at risk of these complications.
This goes back to the idea that the public doesn’t know enough about the medications they’re taking. If more people had been aware of these risks, fewer would have started taking their medications too frequently in the first place. And many people don’t even know that the risk is there.
3. Taking a Dose That’s Too High
As you’d probably expect, if you’re taking a medication dose that’s too high, you’re putting your health at risk. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to instances where someone overdoses on a drug — this is also true for taking marginally more than the recommended dose, especially if this behavior is repeated over a longer period.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Tylenol comes with the risk of severe liver damage,7 unbeknownst to most regular users of Tylenol. If someone doubles up on their Tylenol dosage, they could be putting themselves at a higher risk of developing liver damage.
If you’re taking a dose that’s higher than recommended, especially if habitually, you’re putting yourself at a higher risk of side effects — some of which may be severe.
4. Incorrectly Storing and Disposing of Medications
When it comes to storing and disposing of your medicines, safety is the number one priority. That means keeping medicines out of the reach of children and teens to prevent unintentional or intentional poisoning.
Medicines should be stored in a cool dry place. Exposure to heat, light, and moisture can alter the effects of a drug, and improper storage can cause a medication to deteriorate or allow use by the wrong person. If stored improperly or unused, you can dispose of medicines according to your pharmacist’s instructions or by returning them to a pharmacy for proper disposal.
It can be easy to forget that medications have expiration dates and may lose effectiveness over time. Using expired medications can be dangerous because they may not work like they’re supposed to or pose a risk of bacterial growth. For example, insulin starts to lose its effectiveness after the expiration date, so if someone with diabetes takes their insulin past that date the risk of diabetic shock can increase. When people accidentally take an expired pill due to their neglect to properly dispose of it, their medical issues can be compounded.
Be aware that dumping prescription drugs down the sink or toilet contaminates the water supply. If you don’t have access to a “take-back” program in pharmacies or health units in your community, dispose of prescription drugs safely. Remove the pills from their original container and put them into a leak-proof sealable container along with kitty litter or coffee grounds or similar to hide the contents. Place the sealed container in your normal trash bin. Before throwing away the original packaging, remember to remove any personal identifying details.
5. Taking Medication With (or Without) Food
While dosing with food is commonly recommended for some medications, especially if the medication is used daily for an extended period of time, to protect the stomach lining. While some medication works better when taken with food, other medications such as aspirin may work best when taken on an empty stomach if the medication is only occasionally used, and this may result in better efficacy and a reduced need for readministering more aspirin.9
6. Be aware of Specific Foods to Avoid
While eating a healthful diet is very important for all people, watching what you eat is even more important when you are taking medications. Even though you might not think it makes a difference, certain foods can interfere with the way that your medication works.
For example, grapefruit juice inhibits an enzyme that prevents statin drugs from being metabolized properly.9 The result is that the drug’s effectiveness is greatly reduced, and the risk of toxic side effects increases. This is only one example of why it’s important to know what foods are dangerous to take with your medication so you can avoid them at all costs. Even small changes in your diet can have drastic effects on the way that your medicine affects you.
7. No Medication Schedule From Your Doctor
It’s critical to know exactly how and when you should take your medication. Your doctor had a specific dosage and use schedule in mind when they wrote your prescription. Unfortunately, many people don’t take medications like antibiotics correctly and as a result, their symptoms can return or become worse.
Request a detailed medication schedule. Make sure you and your doctor discuss the proper dosage, frequency, time of day, and other specifications. Without a clear schedule, it’s easy to make a mistake and take medication incorrectly, which can lead to an accidental overdose or other dangerous health problems.
8. Find Out Why You’re Taking Medicine
Too often, people take medications without understanding what they’re meant to treat. As a result, they may continue taking medications even though they are failing to help improve the targeted symptoms. This scenario can lead to secondary issues.
For example, if you take antibiotics to treat an infection but continue to complain of symptoms even after the medicine has run its course, your illness might have actually stemmed from a virus that cannot be treated by antibiotics.10 If you continue to take the antibiotic in this scenario, it not only won’t combat the virus, but it may even make you sicker. In addition, your doctor will have to prescribe a different type of treatment to help you fight the infection.
Make sure that you understand why you’re taking the medication and what it’s supposed to do for you before you start taking it. The absence of this information can set you up to prolong improper treatment, cause the development of more serious conditions, and make you sicker.
9. Stopping Your Medications Too Soon
A common mistake that many people make when taking prescription drugs is stopping the course of medication too soon. It can also happen when a person stops taking a drug too abruptly, which can result in withdrawals. This often happens when a patient begins to feel better and assumes that they don’t need to continue taking their medicine.
It’s extremely important to know that you should never stop your medication early simply because you assume your symptoms have ceased. This mistake often occurs with courses of antibiotics or blood pressure medications and could result in the symptoms returning or worsening. People also sometimes quit taking their antidepressants all at once, which is never advised because antidepressants are renowned for drug dependency and harsh withdrawals including rebound symptoms.11
10. Taking Someone Else’s Medication
It’s easier than you might think to take someone else’s medication. A friend or family member might have a similar-looking medication bottle, causing you to accidentally take the wrong drug. Or, you might have purchased your medication at a pharmacy that carries several different dosages or versions of the same drug. Even if you and the other person are taking the same drug, theirs might be immediate release, and yours may have been designed to release slowly over 12 hours. And, their dosage may differ from your own.
It’s important to ensure you’re only taking medications prescribed to you, especially if you are ever tempted to borrow someone else’s medication. Older medications may have deteriorated to the point where they no longer affect your body the way they’re supposed to, while taking a drug that wasn’t prescribed for you can trigger serious interactions. Never take a medication that was prescribed to someone else.
11. Taking Too Many Medicines
Many people take several different types of medicine on a daily basis, which can make it extremely easy to take the wrong medication or the wrong dose at the wrong time. Some drugs cause drowsiness and a person may forget that they already took a pill, and take another. In some cases, it only takes a few extra pills to put your health at risk. Taking more than needed could easily result in an accidental overdose.12
Similarly, taking too many drugs at once can put you at risk for some very serious conditions, including heart problems and even organ damage. Worse, two medicines may interact and cause one or both drugs to be less effective or even cause a life-threatening condition. You should always be aware of the dosage of each drug you’re taking, the effects of each medication, and what to do if you miss a dose. This will help you avoid any issues and will keep you safe.
Many people are unaware that some common medications are dangerous to take concurrently.13 A person can also over-medicate, unaware of how long a drug takes to work. If you are taking a number of medications, you’re running several risks such as dangerous drug-to-drug interactions, or counteracting the effects of one or both medications entirely.
Keep in mind that the rules around mixing drugs don’t just apply to prescription medications. They’re just as applicable to common over-the-counter medications.14
Other Common Medication Mistakes
Aside from those we’ve listed, there are many additional medication mistakes an individual can make. A few are:
Panicking after a missed dose. While it’s important to stick to your medication schedule, panicking after you miss a dose can cause you to make unfortunate decisions. Rather than double-dosing, which can cause dangerous side effects, simply take the medication as soon as you remember or wait until your next dose if it’s nearly time.
Cutting your dose in half. If you intend to taper off a medication, discuss it with your prescriber first. Halving a dose may be much too large a step-down, resulting in withdrawals or other adverse reactions. If half-pills are approved by your physician, request medications that feature a score line for accurate splitting and utilize a pill cutter instead of a household knife.
Stretching your prescription. Some people attempt to skip doses to make their prescriptions last longer for financial reasons. This is ill-advised (see above). If you can’t afford your prescription, consider requesting a generic version or switching to an alternative under medical monitoring and follow-up care.
No More Medication Mistakes With Alternative to Meds
Hoping to embark on a journey toward better health? Prescription medications often aren’t the best way to go. In fact, if you’re regularly making any of the common medication errors, you’re increasing your likelihood of growing sicker — rather than healthier.
The best way to reduce your risk of medication mistakes is through reducing (or even eliminating) your intake of pharmaceuticals altogether. Unsure how to begin this significant life transition? You can always get in touch with Alternative to Meds Center. We can provide you guidance on the best way to begin to navigate this new world with less reliance on traditional pharmaceuticals. If you decide to become a client with us, we’ll provide you with an integrative and transformative program. Through this program, you’ll be well on your way to cutting down on medication errors — simply by cutting down on over-the-counter and prescription drugs as a whole.
Medication can be a powerful tool, but its use comes with risks. Discover what options are available to you before relying on prescription medication and its dangers, especially when used long term. You can contact us through our website or start by learning more about Alternative to Meds Center including insurance coverage and more about our program’s admissions process today.
This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.
Dr. Michael Loes, M.D.
Dr. Michael Loes is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Pain Management and Addiction Medicine. He holds a dual license in Homeopathic and Integrative Medicine. He obtained his medical doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1978. Dr. Loes performed an externship at the National Institute of Health for Psychopharmacology. Additionally, he is a well-published author including Arthritis: The Doctor’s Cure, The Aspirin Alternative, The Healing Response, and Spirit Driven Health: The Psalmist’s Guide for Recovery. He has been awarded the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s “Excellence in Research” Award.
Lyle Murphy is the founder of the Alternative to Meds Center, a licensed residential program that helps people overcome dependence on psychiatric medication and addiction issues using holistic and psychotherapeutic methods.
Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on the website is intended to encourage, not replace, direct patient-health professional relationships. Always consult with your doctor before altering your medications. Adding nutritional supplements may alter the effect of medication. Any medication changes should be done only after proper evaluation and under medical supervision.