Second guessing your prescriptions

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    Every man’s looking for the silver bullet: Pop a wonder pill and you’re well. Too often, though, just the opposite happens. Medications sent nearly 660,000 people to the hospital last year. In fact, some experts count adverse reactions to prescription medicines as a bigger health problem than illicit drug use.

    Older people are especially at risk. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has suggested that a quarter of the elderly in the U.S. are being prescribed drugs that are more likely to do them harm than good.

    But no age group is immune to the side effects of medications. For example, about 16,000 automobile accidents each year are attributed to impairment from prescription drugs.

    Unquestionably, a significant part of the problem is poor prescribing practices on the part of doctors. Pharmacology makes up only a small part of the curriculum at most medical schools, and there is a bewildering array of new drugs to keep up with. Too, some doctors feel pressure to do something. So they send their patients out the door with a prescription in hand when sending them to bed would have worked at least as well.

    What can you do to avoid getting caught in a chemical crossfire? First, always be sure any doctor you see knows exactly what medicines you’re taking–prescription and over-the-counter. Keep a list in your wallet; it’s easy to forget what you take, and you never know when it might turn out to be very important.

    Second, expect your doctor to tell you why you’re being prescribed a drug and what side effects and bad interactions there might be. If he or she doesn’t offer, insist on an explanation–a good one.

    Third, use the same pharmacy for all your medication purchases. Pharmacists are often very knowledgeable about drug interactions and need to know everything you’re taking. Many also offer printed handouts about medications; ask for them and read them.

    Fourth, watch for any new symptoms when you start taking a new drug, and report them promptly to your doctor. Reducing the dosage or switching to a different medication may be called for.

    Fifth, carefully follow the directions provided with the medicine. For example, problems can arise when some drugs are taken with (or without) food.

    Finally, guys, resist the temptation to think that the solution always lies in a pill bottle. If you get a headache every day, don’t treat it by buying stock in Bayer.

    In some cases, drugs can do wonders, but in others they may do little but cover up symptoms. And occasionally, that silver bullet can turn out to be a lead one pointed at your head.

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