Am I Taking Too Many Medications?
By Prineet Tung, MD, board-certified internist with Thunderbird Internal Medicine Summit Medical Group Arizona
Here’s something you may not know: taking more than five medications is called polypharmacy. While each medication may be necessary, and the benefits outweigh the risk of not taking them, it’s still important to be aware of the symptoms that can occur from polypharmacy. The symptoms of simultaneous drug usage can easily be confused with symptoms of normal aging or another disease, which oftentimes results in additional drugs being prescribed as treatment.
Medications can improve the lives of people who suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, mental illness and chronic pain. However, taking too many prescription medications can increase the risk of side effects, negative interactions, the need for hospitalization, and additional incurred cost.
The symptoms of drug interactions can include:
- Tiredness, sleepiness or decreased alertness
- Loss of appetite
- Constipation, diarrhea or incontinence
- Confusion (all or some of time)
- Falls and fractures
- Depression or lack of interest in usual activities
- Hallucinations - seeing or hearing things
- Anxiety or excitability
- Feeling dizzy
- Decreased sexual behavior
- Skin rashes
- Memory problems
Older adults are more sensitive to medications because of changes in liver and kidney function as they age. In many cases, drugs for seniors should be prescribed at a reduced dose. The more medications used, the greater the chance of negative drug interactions. Prescription medications may cause dizziness and loss of balance, leading to falls or fractures and hospitalization, as well as cognitive and memory problems. Bad drug reactions can start even if you have been taking a drug for a long time. Your doctor depends on you to notify them of any issues or concerns and to initiate a discussion about discontinuing use of some of these drugs. However, do not stop any medication without first consulting with your physician.
An effective way to minimize risk of drug interaction issues is to get all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy. When you go to one pharmacy, your pharmacist will remain aware of all the medications you take. It’s up to you or your caretaker/ family to keep track of the prescriptions you are taking. Remember -- your medication list is unlikely to be available to all health professionals online and electronic medical records systems rarely “talk” to one another.
- Never take a prescription drug that was prescribed to someone else
- Do not discontinue a medication without discussing it with your doctor
- Talk with your doctor to determine if a drug has outlived its utility
- Maintain and keep with you an updated list of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs vitamins and supplements taken
- Share your updated medication list with your primary care and specialists at each visit