Recent headlines about the risks of some popular painkillers are a reminder of the dangers of medication—both over-the-counter and prescription. A few very simple steps can provide you and your family with an extra measure of safety:
• Begin with a medicine chest cleaning. Avoid medicine mix-ups by throwing away anything with a past-due expiration date or prescriptions that are no longer needed.
• Select a safe spot to store medications, such as a high shelf in the kitchen or linen closet. Medicine chests actually are a poor spot to store medications because the heat and humidity in the bathroom can cause medicines to lose their potency. Children also can climb onto sinks and quickly gain access to medicine chests.
• Store medicines in their original, labeled child-resistant containers. In the first two decades after child-resistant packaging was mandated in 1972, poisoning fatalities from medications were reduced by half. Thirty-three years later, there still are accidental poisonings, generally because people mishandle their medications.
“When medications are transferred to other containers, no one else knows exactly what they are or how they are used or how to take them, and children can get into them,” says Dr. Rohit Shenoi, an emergency room physician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
If you have no children in the household, ask your pharmacist to use containers with non-childproof caps. However, if you carry medicines with you, be sure you never leave your purse out where a curious child might find it.
If you have teenagers in the house, you still need to be vigilant. In its 17th annual study of teen drug abuse, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that 10 percent of teens have abused prescriptions intended for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and another 9 percent have abused cough medicine or other over-the-counter drugs. Since teens can be resourceful at locating what you may have hidden, keep very few medications around the house, and be aware of quantity. If you find that certain medications are missing, talk to your teen.
“Another common mistake people make in taking medicines is not reading the labels,” says Hedy Cohen, vice president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices.
Double-checking the dosage and frequency of any medication you take is good common sense, but up until recently, labels and directions have been written in very small type. Finally, companies are beginning to recognize the importance of better labeling. Target stores now offer containers featuring easy identification, with the name of the drug printed clearly on the top of the bottle. Other design features include an information hierarchy, with the drug name, dosage and intake instructions placed above less important data such as the number of pills, expiration date and the doctor’s name.
If you take medications regularly, purchase a weekly pill organizer that has slots for each day and compartments for morning, noon and night medications. Instead of reaching for the medicines you need each day and possibly grabbing the wrong bottle, sit down at a table with good light once a week and distribute medications and vitamins in the organizer appropriately.
Cohen also advises against sharing medications. “People mean well when they offer a family member or a friend something that worked for them.” However, “it’s actually an extremely dangerous practice. You don’t know how your medication may interact with others they are taking, you may suggest an inappropriate dose, or the other person may be allergic.”
As a final safety measure, post the telephone number of the Poison Control Center for your area by the kitchen telephone or in the cabinet where medications are stored. Find your region’s number in your local telephone directory, or dial (800) 222-1222 from any landline telephone to be connected to the nearest poison control center.