Medication Safety

Are prescription medicines safe?

All prescription medicines have some risk of causing harm or side effects. This is why the medicines require a prescription. The job of the doctor is to weigh the benefit of the medicine in helping your medical problem against the possible risk of harm from the medicine. The use of the prescription medicine is appropriate if the expected benefit outweighs the risk of harm.

Are over-the-counter medicines safe?

Over-the-counter medicines are safe for most people when used as directed. These medicines can still cause harm, however.

For example, the leading cause of acute liver failure in both the United States and the United Kingdom is toxicity from acetaminophen, the active ingredient in many over-the-counter products such as Tylenol®, Sinutab®, Nyquil®, and others. This toxicity usually results from taking an overdose of acetaminophen or taking alcohol (such as beer or wine) along with the medicine.

What about herbal products, such as gingko biloba or saw palmetto?

Just because herbal products are “natural” does not automatically mean that they are safe. The venom produced by a rattlesnake is a natural product, but that does not make it “safe!”

Most herbal products are safe when taken as directed. These products, however, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the way that prescription and over-the-counter medicines are regulated. Cases have been reported of herbal products being contaminated or adulterated because of the lack of oversight of the manufacturers.

In addition, some herbal products can interact with prescription medicines. Gingko biloba, for example, can increase the risk of seizures in people who have epilepsy. It can also make the blood too thin in people who take warfarin (Coumadin®).

What are other medicine safety issues?

In addition to possible risks from individual medicines, taking combinations of multiple medicines also has risks. Medicines can interact with one another and produce harm to the person. Also, medicines with similar actions can have additive side effects that can cause problems. In general, the more medicines a person takes, the greater the risk of harm from the combination of all the medicines.

In older adults, medicines can also cause or contribute to common problems. These problems include falls, mental confusion, and constipation, among others.

Finally, harm can occur when counterfeit (fake) medicines are taken. This is most likely to happen when persons attempt to obtain medicines by ordering them from the internet or purchasing them in another country outside the United States. Never attempt to obtain prescription medicines over the internet without a prescription.

Some legitimate pharmacies do provide medicines through the internet. These pharmacies can be identified through the use of the VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) logo. Visit the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy Web site for more information about the VIPPS program and buying medicines online.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 10% of all medicines sold in the world are actually counterfeit. In some countries, the counterfeit rate is much higher. In the United States, it is extremely low.

Get more information on how to avoid counterfeit medicines.


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