Australians are being urged to be careful about inappropriately mixing their medicines to reduce the risk of harmful medicine interactions. As part of the annual NPS MedicineWise campaign – Be Medicinewise Week (21–27 August) people are encouraged to check they’re taking their medicines correctly, and also to consider whether they or someone in their family might be unintentionally mixing their medicines.
Sarah Spagnardi, Pharmacist and Manager, NPS Medicines Line said, “It’s important to understand when you can and can’t mix medicines. There are risks associated with taking particular medicines at the same time, mixing some over-the-counter products with prescription medicines, and taking medicines with alcohol so it’s important to check if these are safe to take together,” says Ms Spagnardi.
Results from a survey* conducted for Be Medicinewise Week by Galaxy Research indicate that almost one in three Australians admit to consuming alcohol shortly after taking prescription pain relief medicines.
“This is a concerning statistic as alcohol can increase the effect of medicines that relax or sedate the body, such as sleeping and travel sickness tablets, cough and cold preparations, anti-anxiety tablets and antidepressants. The result of this interaction can be increased drowsiness and dizziness.”
Ms Spagnardi points out that people should always check the directions on their medicine labels and avoid alcohol if this warning is given. If you are unsure about drinking alcohol while taking a medicine, you should ask a health professional for advice.
*The survey of 1,000 Australians aged 18 and over was conducted by the Galaxy Omnibus in July 2017. Full survey results are available on request.
Taking multiple medicines
While many Australians are advised to take combinations of medicines that work together to help treat an illness, some medicines do not mix well. Mixing some medicines can cause interactions that may lead to unwanted side effects or block the effects of one or more of the medicines.
Older people, those living with chronic illnesses who take multiple medicines, and young children are more likely to experience interactions, but interactions can potentially happen to anybody who takes a combination of medicines.
Ms Spagnardi says “An interaction might mean too much of one medicine is absorbed or it could result in a medicine being ineffective."
“For example, some over-the-counter medicines that treat gastric reflux (heartburn) can interact with medicines for other conditions, including antibiotics, blood thinners and heart medicines, and stop them from being absorbed and working effectively”, said Ms Spagnardi.
There are simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of medicine interactions. Follow the information on medicine labels, ask your doctor or pharmacist how to take your medicines safely, and tell them about all the medicines you are taking (including over-the-counter products, vitamins and minerals).
To reduce the likelihood of interactions occurring, Ms Spagnardi recommends that Australians create a medicines list to help keep track of all of their medical information in one central location.
“A medicines list records all of the medicines you use, including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines and serves as a reminder as to how and when to take your medicines. This ensures everyone involved in your health care understands what medicines you take”, Ms Spagnardi says.
“If you are choosing a new over-the-counter medicine, and you already take a regular prescription, complementary or other medicine, you should always ask a pharmacist or health professional whether the new combination will be safe for you”, said Ms Spagnardi.
The free Medicinewise smartphone app is an effective tool to manage multiple medicines. It enables you to keep your up-to-date medicines list handy, set multiple reminders and alerts, and record key information that can be shared with health professionals during practice visits or emergencies.
Be Medicinewise: Six tips to avoid harmful medicine interactions
- Make sure that all your healthcare professionals know all the medicines you are taking, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and any vitamins or herbal supplements. Keeping a Medicines List will help you remember all the medicines you are taking.
- Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist the following questions before taking a new medicine:
- Can I take it with the other medicines I am taking?
- Should I avoid certain foods, beverages or other products?
- What are possible drug interaction signs I should know about?
- Watch out for unexpected symptoms in the first few days after your medicines change in any way.
- Check the information provided for your medicines. This includes over-the-counter products. You can find a list of known interactions in the consumer medicine information (CMI) for your particular medicine, under the heading ‘Taking other medicines’. Use the NPS MedicineWise Medicine Finder to find the CMIs for your medicines. Labelling may change as new information is learned about medicines, so it’s important to review the CMI frequently.
- Don’t stop medicines without advice. Stopping your prescribed medicines (and even a few over-the-counter medicines) without speaking to a health professional can have serious effects on your health. If in doubt about stopping an over-the-counter medicine, ask a pharmacist for advice. Some medicines may need to be gradually decreased before stopping to prevent serious effects on your health.
- Never take someone else’s medicines. Taking a medicine that was prescribed for someone else or bought on the Internet can be dangerous, and lead to unexpected drug interactions.
Peter Panagiotopoulos is an example of someone who has suffered the perils of mixing medicines. The 38 year old Sydney-sider was left with a smashed vertebra and compressed disc after he was struck in the back by 100 kilos of steel at work.
Peter Panagiotopoulos, a 38 year old Sydneysider, was struck in the back by 100 kilos of steel after tripping and falling while unloading materials at a metal recycling factory. The incident left him with a smashed vertebra and compressed disc.
He now suffers areas of numbness, he has no reflexes in his left leg and severe pain in his leg and lower back, every minute of every day.
“For several years I took painkillers. I started with Panadeine Forte and ended up on a daily mix of Gabapentin, Rivitrel and Endone, and I increased doses periodically to provide the same level of relief. Due to the medication, I was constantly depressed and anxious, and had no desire to socialise, shutting out family and friends.” Peter explained
To move away from pharmacological solutions to manage his pain, Peter enrolled in a pain management program and now uses alternative techniques for managing the pain, which he practices daily.
Peter is available for interview.
Be Medicinewise Week, 21–27 August 2017, has the theme ‘Medicine misuse can happen to anyone’. To find out more go to nps.org.au/bemedicinewise.
The week focuses on helping people understand medicines misuse and how to avoid it. Misusing medicines may include:
- taking medicines at the wrong time, or the wrong dose
- taking medicines in unsafe ways such as opening capsules or cutting patches
- sharing medicines with family or friends
- mixing medicines leading to incorrect dosing or side effects
- taking medicines with other substances like illegal drugs or alcohol.
For information about medicines, including side effects and interactions, consumers can call 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday AEST (excluding NSW public holidays).
The Adverse Medicines Event (AME) Line is a service for people to report suspected side effects and reactions to medicines and is available Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm AEST (excluding NSW public holidays). It is not for emergencies. Alternatively you can report suspected side effects directly to the TGA via their website. www.tga.gov.au
Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS MedicineWise enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests.
We receive funding from the Australian Government Department of Health.