Here’s how to reduce the risk of medication errors

Dear Mayo Clinic: My friend’s father recently passed away from a medication error. One of her prescriptions was improperly filled and caused a fatal reaction. I take several medications for various conditions. How can I reduce my risk of medication error?

Answer: Medication errors refer to errors in prescribing and dispensing medication. These mistakes hurt hundreds of thousands of people every year in the United States. Common causes of medication errors include drug names that look similar, drugs that look similar, and medical abbreviations. Most medication errors can be avoided.

Knowledge is your best defense against medication errors.

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of medication errors is to take an active role in your health care. Learn about any medications you are taking, including possible side effects. Never hesitate to ask questions or share your concerns with your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Medication errors can happen to anyone, anywhere, including your home and your health care provider‘s office, as well as a hospital, pharmacy, or retirement home. Children are particularly prone to medication errors because they usually need different doses of medication than adults.

An example of a medication error is taking an over-the-counter product that contains acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, when you are already taking a prescription pain reliever that contains acetaminophen. This error could cause you to take more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen, which puts you at risk of liver damage.

Another example of a possible medication error is taking a depression medication called fluoxetine (Prozac or Sarafem) with a migraine medication called sumatriptan (Imitrex). Both drugs affect the levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. Taking them together can lead to a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. Symptoms of the dangerous drug interaction include confusion, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, and increased body temperature, among others.

It is important to keep medications in their original labeled containers and to carefully read the instructions on how to take the medications. Other medication errors include ear and eye drops, chewing non-chewable medications, cutting pills, and the wrong dose.

Don’t assume that chewing a pill is as good as swallowing it. Some medicines should never be chewed, cut or crushed. It can change the way the body absorbs them. Ensuring an accurate dose of liquid medicine is essential, so avoid using spoons in your cutlery drawer rather than a syringe or dose cup, both of which are available at most drugstores.

Be proactive and review your medications regularly, especially when starting a new medication.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist these questions:

• What is the brand or generic name of the drug?

• What is the medicine supposed to do? How long will it take before I see results?
• What is the dose? How long should I take it?

• What should I do if I miss a dose?

• What should I do if I accidentally take more than the recommended dose?

• Are there any foods, drinks, other medications, or activities that I should avoid while taking this medication?

• What are the possible side effects ? What should I do if they happen?

• Will this new medication interfere with my other medications? If so, how?

Your healthcare provider can help prevent medication errors by using a computer to enter and print, or send prescriptions digitally, instead of handwriting them. When you pick up a prescription, make sure it’s the one your healthcare provider ordered. It also allows you to keep the information sheets that accompany your medications.

Another way to reduce the risk of medication errors is to reconcile your medications at each visit with your health care provider. This involves comparing your health care provider’s medication list with the medication list you are taking, which can help avoid medication errors.

It is important to share this information:

• The names and strengths of all medications you are taking and when you take them, including prescriptions; herbs; vitamins; food supplements; over-the-counter drugs; vaccines; and anything given intravenously, including diagnostic and contrast agents, radioactive drugs, feeding tube supplements, and blood products.

• Any medicine to which you are allergic or which has caused problems in the past.

• If you have new, chronic or serious health problems.

• If you could be pregnant or are trying to become pregnant.

Also, keep an up-to-date list of all your medications, including over-the-counter medications and supplements, in your wallet, purse, or other safe place. Being prepared and informed are the best ways to avoid health problems.

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