Have you ever forgotten to take your blood pressure drug? Or grabbed a teaspoon from a kitchen drawer to measure liquid medication? Those are two examples of medication errors that are all too easy to make. And Americans make drug mistakes a lot—more than 500,000 times a year, according to the Institute of Medicine.
As simple as those mistakes sound, they can have serious consequences: At least 90,000 life-threatening or fatal events in this country occur each year as a result of medication errors people make at home.
Medication mistakes can affect anyone, but older people face particular risks, says Barbara Young, Pharm.D., at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. That’s because seniors often take multiple medications, so there’s more opportunity for a mistake.
Here are six common drug mistakes people make at home—and strategies to avoid them.
Mistake: Not Reading the Insert
You know that piece of paper stapled to your medication bag when you pick up a prescription? Read it, urges Michael R. Cohen, R.Ph., president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. It’s full of information about when and how often to take the drug, side effects to watch for, drugs it can interact with, and other key tips, he says. Yet research suggests that half of adults don’t take their medications as directed, in part because they often ignore that document.
Smart solution: If the patient information sheet is missing when you pick up your prescription, ask the pharmacist for it. And if you don’t understand something written on the sheet, ask the pharmacist or your doctor for clarification. If the sheet is missing when you get home, you can get a copy of it at dailymed.nlm.nih.gov.
Mistake: Sloppy Measuring
One survey of patients in doctors’ waiting rooms found that 73 percent regularly used a kitchen spoon or teaspoon to measure out a dose of liquid medicine, not the measuring device that came with the drug. Because kitchen spoons aren’t very accurate, that can lead to problems such as taking too much or too little medication.
Smart solution: Always use the measuring device that comes with a liquid drug, typically a syringe or dosing cup. And check the markings to make sure you can read them clearly. If you can’t, or if you lose the measuring device, ask any pharmacist for a replacement.
Mistake: Skipping Doses
Some people do this intentionally to save money on prescriptions. Others do it accidentally because they forget. But it’s always risky, especially for medications that require a steady level of the drug in your blood. Those include antibiotics, the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin and generic), and medications for diabetes and high blood pressure. For other meds, such as anti-anxiety pills, missing a dose could trigger a return of symptoms.
Smart solution: If you’re skipping doses because of the cost, and you’re using a brand-name medication, ask your doctor whether a generic is available or whether there’s a less expensive brand-name option that would be appropriate. And if your medications are generic but still costly, check whether they are included in discount generic-drug programs. Many chain pharmacies offer a month’s supply for about $4, though restrictions apply. (Find more information from our Best Buy Drugs experts on cost-saving drug programs by clicking here.)
Reminder strategies and simple organizer products can keep you on track if you’re forgetting to take your medications when you should. For example, place your pill bottles in a noticeable (but safe) location. Or post a medication schedule on the refrigerator. Another helpful strategy is to take medicines at a set time each day—for instance, at breakfast or bedtime.
Many people use organizers with individual compartments for each day of the week. Some have two, three, or four daily compartments for people who take medication multiple times a day. Organizers with reminder alarms are also available. Or consider a pill reminder app that sends alerts to your cell phone to prompt you when it’s time to take your medicine.
Mistake: Taking Drugs With the Wrong Foods
Certain foods and medications don’t mix. Most notable is grapefruit—the fruit and juice—which can interact dangerously with more than 50 drugs, including cholesterol-lowering statins, high blood pressure drugs, and allergy medications. For some of those drugs, grapefruit can intensify the effects; for others, it can reduce the amount in your blood so that you don’t get a full dose.
Bananas, which are high in potassium, can also have a surprising effect in tandem with drugs such as ACE inhibitors taken for high blood pressure and heart failure. Because those drugs boost potassium levels, the two together can lead to high amounts of the nutrient and irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations.
Smart solution: Whenever your doctor prescribes a new drug, ask whether there’s any food or drink you need to avoid. (Learn more about foods that can interact with medications.)
Mistake: Splitting Pills That Shouldn't Be Split
Sometimes splitting pills—where you divide a pill in half—can help you save money. And it’s safe to do that with many pills. But for certain drugs it can be a serious problem, especially long-acting or extended release pills, such as the opioid oxycodone (Oxycontin), the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta and generic), and the heartburn medication omeprazole (Prilosec). Dividing those medications damages a special coating designed to release the medication slowly.
Smart solution: Before you split any medication, talk with your doctor or pharmacist to see whether it’s safe and appropriate. (You can also get a list of drugs that can safely be split here.) If you get the okay, divide medication only with a pill splitter. Studies have found that those inexpensive devices, which are widely available at most pharmacies and large discount stores, are your best bet for dividing the medication into equal halves. Your health insurer may even send you one free.
Mistake: Taking Drugs That Won't Work For Your Condition
The poster child for the wrong-drug-for-the-condition mistake is taking antibiotics for viral illnesses, like a cold or the flu. Many people ask their doctor for the medications when they have those viral infections. And doctors still too often prescribe an antibiotic if a patient asks for it, even if they know it won’t help. For example, in a recent Consumer Reports poll of 1,000 adults, one in five people who were prescribed an antibiotic had requested one.
But antibiotics won’t help you recover faster. And taking one when you don’t need it contributes to the development of resistant bacteria—and that can increase the likelihood that an antibiotic won’t work when you really do need it. Those drugs can also cause side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Smart Solution: Get the flu shot annually to help protect yourself from getting sick. If you have a cold or the flu, get plenty of rest and drink clear fluids. Antivirals such as Tamiflu and Relenza might be an option for older adults, nursing home residents, and others with the flu who are at a risk for complications. Ease pain and reduce fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) or ibuprofen (Advil and generic). To soothe a sore throat, gargle with salt water, drink warm beverages, or eat or drink something cool.
Steps to Stay Safe at the Doctor's Office and Pharmacy
Medication errors can start at the doctor’s office or pharmacy, but these steps can help you stay safe:
To help prevent dangerous interactions, tell your doctor about all of the medications (including OTCs) and supplements that you take.
For each prescription, have your doctor explain how long to take the drug, how you will know that it’s working, and what side effects to watch for.
Ask your doctor to write why you need the medication in the prescription instructions. That can help the pharmacist catch a potential error when dispensing.
Ask the doctor for a printout with the medication’s name and dose. Compare them with the medication you get. Make sure the medicine container has the right dose, drug, and number of pills.
When you get refills, make sure the drug’s color, markings, shape, and size are the same as your previous prescription. If they’re not, double-check with the pharmacist.
Get all of your prescriptions at one pharmacy, if possible. That way, the pharmacist can easily track your medications and check for drugs that shouldn’t be taken together or aren’t appropriate for you.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of the Consumer Reports On Health newsletter.
These materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).
Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.