Thursday, February 5, 2015

Medicine errors at home: all too common, especially for children

It's a common event in many households - a child has an ear infection and has to take antibiotics. A family member has an injury and needs to take analgesics, pain relievers. In other families, someone has a chronic illness that requires regular prescription drugs. Medicines are a part of modern life. They keep us alive and they make life more liveable for millions of people.

According to an article in Family Practice Management, in any given week, four out of five Americans take either a prescription drug, an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, or a dietary or herbal supplement. That's a lot of people. The article goes on to say that nearly 1/3 of American adults take five or more drugs. But if you think about it, that's not too surprising. Let's say our friend Mr. Johnson has type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension. He may take one or two prescription meds for each condition - and then on top of it, he may have other medicines to take occasionally if he had an infection or some other short-term health problem. That's easily five or more medicines at one time.

Any time you take a prescription drug, there's room for error - if you take more than one, the chances of making mistakes multiply.

If you're a parent, giving medicine to a child, you know how easy it is to make a mistake. The journal Pediatrics, published a study last year that found that outside of the hospital environment, every eight minutes in the U.S., a child under the age of six years old is subjected to a drug error. One every eight minutes. The study looked at a period of 10 years. Almost 700,000 children had medication errors - 25 of the children died. Almost 2,000 were admitted to critical care units.

The most common drug error at home is dosage - the amount of the drug given or taken, according to that last study. Dosing mistakes like giving too much of a medicine or not enough. If you're giving or taking a liquid medicine, dosing errors usually come from incorrect measuring. Someone may use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon or the other way around. Kitchen spoons aren't specific enough for medicines either, so the dose isn't precise. If parents or other caregivers are giving medicines to children, one caregiver may give a dose not realizing another already gave it.

Other common errors involve:

  • Chewing or breaking a pill or capsule that shouldn't be chewed or broken. This is a common mistake. Many pills shouldn't be broken because they have a special coating on them to prevent the medicine from being absorbed in the body too early in the digestive process.

  • Taking at the wrong time. Some pills must be taken with food, others on an empty stomach. Taking them incorrectly will affect how they are absorbed and how effective they are. And taking some pills on an empty stomach can cause serious irritation, leading to other problems.

  • Missing doses. Forgetting to take medicine is a common problem and just about everyone who has ever taken a prescription drug has forgotten a dose from time to time. 

  • Misunderstanding directions. Taking medicines can be stressful. You're not feeling well when you've gone to the doctor or nurse practitioner. You may feel rushed or you may not think to review the prescription - this can lead to misunderstanding the instructions. Unfortunately, this is more common than people realize.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are serious products and while we may take them every day, it's really important not to ever take them for granted. Mistakes happen and they happen every day. So know your prescription and how it should be taken. If you have any questions about any drugs you take, ask your pharmacist. Your pharmacist is your best resource when it comes to medications - it's his or her specialty.