13 Medication Safety Tips That Can Save Your Life


Medications are supposed to help not hurt right? Unfortunately, if you’re over 65, your chance of a medication miss-hap is higher than ever!

The culprits? Blood thinners, antibiotics, diabetes medication, opioids and anti-psychotics. Did you know combining alcohol with Xanax, OxyContin or Prozac can be fatal? Or that 39% of blood thinner related medication errors are due to patients being given the wrong drug entirely!!!

The good news is that most medication problems are preventable. In fact, upwards of 50% of adverse drug events are considered avoidable according to MedScape.

Follow these tips to help keep you out of harm’s way:

1. Take Medications as Prescribed

Only take your medications as prescribed. Take your pills at the right time, in the right dosage and never alter them (crush a pill into powder). Don’t play Doogie Howser with your medications. If you’re feeling any type of discomfort, wait it out and call your doctor immediately.

2. Keep a Medication List

This is important, especially if you’re seeing multiple doctors, each prescribing their own medications. Toxic drug combinations are a leading cause of negative reactions. Without a centralized database, you’re doctors are only as good as the information you provide them.

This list should include all prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, herbal pills and supplements you’re taking. It should also list the doctor who prescribed your medication, your dosage, frequency and the purpose of each medication.

Review the list with your primary care provider regularly to make sure you’re only taking what you need.

3. Be Aware of Potential Drug Interactions

Be especially wary of drug / condition, drug / food and drug / alcohol interactions. Did you know that if you have high blood pressure you could have a negative reaction if you take a nasal decongestant? If you take certain statin drugs to lower cholesterol like Lipitor or Zocor, you could have a negative reaction if you drink grapefruit juice? If you drink alcohol with many common prescription drugs it can cause memory loss, irritability or even loss of coordination?

Mixing drugs like mixing drinks, can get you in far greater trouble than a hangover. Proceed with extreme caution.

4. Be Aware of Potential Drug Side Affects

Whenever you’re prescribed medication, make sure you become intimately familiar with its side effects to avoid surprises and possible dangers. Also, ask your doctor what activities should be avoided when on the medication due to side-effects. For example, if you’re taking an anti-anxiety pill, make sure not to get behind the wheel f it cause drowsiness.

5. Review Medications With Your Health Care Provider Regularly

Review your medications with your doctor regularly to ensure you’re continuing to take the right dosages as your age/weight/condition evolves, taking the correct combination of medications and only taking the medication you need to. Ask your doctor if each medication is necessary and if there aren’t any non-medication alternatives.

6. Check to See if Your Medications are Listed as Unsafe for the Elderly

Despite our reliance on doctors, there is no better advocate for your own health or that of a loved one than yourself. Take your list of medications and compare them against the American Geriatric Society’s 2019 American Geriatrics Society Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults. The Beers Criteria is a list of medications that have an “unfavorable balance of benefits and harms in many older adults, particularly when compared with pharmacological and non-pharmacological alternatives.”

If you find some of the drugs you are currently taking are on the Beers list, consult with your doctor to determine if it continues to be an appropriate prescription. Just because the medication is on the list doesn’t mean it’s definitely inappropriate, but it is potentially inappropriate. You might want to get a second opinion. Don’t be shy.

7. Use One Pharmacist if you Can

Because drug to drug interactions are a significant risk of an adverse drug event, dealing with one pharmacist reduces the likelihood of an error due to lack of knowledge of your complete file.

While you may be forced to deal with multiple medical specialists, you can deal with the pharmacist of your choice. With a complete picture of your medications and dosages, your pharmacist can act as an additional backstop / safety guard / insurance that can alert you to any problematic prescriptions.

8. Monitor your Symptoms Regularly

If a symptom continues to occur, it could be a sign you need to go back to your doctor to reassess your situation. Likewise, if your symptoms get better, it could mean you might be able to come off your medications (depending on the ailment), or that your treatment is just fine.

Monitor your symptoms and discuss them with your doctor. Don’t stay on medications longer than you have to. This can help you get off medications with unwanted side effects more quickly, including addiction.

9. Monitor the Effects of your Medications, Especially for High Blood Pressure and Diabetes

It’s not uncommon for it to take some time before finding the right dosage levels for some medications. It’s a bit of trial and error, especially for blood pressure medication. That said, while going through the iterative process, be very aware of the dangers, such as light headedness or dizziness, which can exacerbate issues such as falls. Also, work with your doctor to understand what the blood pressure goals are – 150/90, 140/80?

10. Don’t Stop Testing your Blood

Many drugs are prescribed under the understanding that you will have your blood tested regularly to determine their effectiveness and to test for any negative side-effects. This is especially important for drugs like anti-coagulants (blood thinners) to determine if they are doing their job. It can also help you determine if the dosage is too high and at risk of causing you bleeding.

11. Keep Pills in a Pill Organizer or Have your Pharmacist Blister Pack your Doses

While pill boxes can be helpful to anyone with a heavy pill regime, they can prove essential for the visually or cognitively impaired.

If your pill regimen is especially burdensome, you might also want to consider having your pharmacist put each of your doses (morning, lunch, dinner, bedtime, pre-meal, post-meal, etc…) in personalized, detachable, color coded blister packs.

For those even more concerned with medical compliance, you might want to consider automated medication reminders. These help users ensure the correct medications are taken at the right time, and can notify a caregiver when doses are missed.

12. Don’t Alter Your Pills

If your pills are meant to be swallowed whole, don’t crush them, or put them in water. Some pills are designed to be time released over several hours and crushing them can cause them to be processed into your blood stream faster than they ought to be. If you have trouble swallowing your pills, ask your doctor if there is an alternative delivery system that you can use i.e. capsule, smaller pills, etc…

13. Get Rid of Drugs No Longer Needed

Some medications are so dangerous, the FDA actually recommends you flush them down the toilet once they expire or your prescription is over. This will help avoid you, a family member, or a child from taking the pill in error in the future with grave effects. Drugs such as Dilaudid, Percocets, OxyContin, and Demerol should all be immediately dispensed with once they are no longer needed or expired.

  1. Thanks for the tip about using one pharmacist to make sure that you reduce the likelihood of errors. I'm hoping to take my daughter to a new pharmacist for her anxiety medication. It'd be nice if we could find a way to save money on her prescription as well.

  2. I appreciate this warning you give in number 3! I had never thought about how all the things I could be taking could interact with each other. I think that it is really important that people have a very strong sense of medication management, and that they understand not only how their medication works, but how it will work with other medication.