How to Get the Most From Your Prescribed and Over-the-Counter Medications

Expert tips on how to avoid medication-related problems
types of medication

Contributor: Ronan Factora, MD

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One of the tasks of a physician is to manage acute and chronic medical conditions. Often, this involves prescribing medicine.

Many medical problems can be matched with a drug that treats it. Physicians follow the guidelines for diabetes, heart failure, osteoporosis, hypertension and other conditions, and are prescriptive in what they suggest to achieve goals of care. Frequently, goals are to improve  symptoms, reduce hospitalizations and/or avoid the complications associated with having these illnesses.

Even before patients visit their doctors, they can purchase an array of over-the-counter medicines, herbal supplements and vitamins  to help treat their symptoms and conditions. Yes, we are a species that uses substances to help improve our quality of life. Often, we have evidence to back up the claims and expectations of what these substances are meant to do.

Concern over side effects

Sometimes, though, people become very concerned about the potential side effects of the medications they take or have been prescribed. The attention on side effects may overshadow the benefits of the medication.

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One example is the risk of osteonecrosis of the jaw associated with use of bisphosphonates, a class of medications prescribed to help reduce the risk of fracture associated with osteoporosis. Though the risk of this potential side effect was one in 10,000, the medication and all of its benefit in patients was abandoned due to fear of this rare side effect.

One other medication class that received a lot of attention was statins and their potential risk for cognitive impairment. People stopped taking the drug in fear of developing dementia, and abandoned their benefit of reducing the risk of heart attack in those with a history of diabetes or coronary artery disease.

One needs only to do an internet search for a drug or listen to a TV commercial to learn about horrible or life-threatening side effects. Medications are merely substances that provide benefit, but they are never free of side effects.

Supplements have side effects, too

It also should  be mentioned that people may not be familiar with the side-effect profile of over-the-counter medications . Herbal supplements and many compounded supplements available without a prescription have a number of side effects that are not mentioned because the manufacturer is not required to disclose them. Each single component of these multi-substance supplements could be considered a drug in and of itself.

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A significant concern for these over-the-counter medications is that physicians may not be aware that a patient is taking them, and there may be interactions between these substances and medications your doctor prescribes.

Avoiding problems

Take these steps to avoid medication-related problems:

  • Confirm with your doctor all the prescribed and over-the-counter medicines you are taking.
  • Make sure all of your medications are prescribed for a specific reason.
  • Check to see if medications are prescribed to treat the side effects of other medications. If this is the case, consider stopping the medication causing the side effect.
  • Make sure the medications are doing the things they’re supposed to do.

Any concerns about side effects of medications should never be ignored. But before stopping the medication on your own, be sure to review your concerns with your doctor. This way, together you can make sure that the risks that you are concerned about are outweighed by the benefits expected from the medication.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic. 

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