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The Risks of Mix 'n Match Medicine

How healthy is your medicine cabinet? Are you taking a chance by combining too many prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, and supplements? As self-doctoring becomes more common, the family medicine chest becomes more critical. The American Pharmaceutical Association suggests these precautions:

  • Check expiration dates. All prescription drugs and OTCs must have expiration dates. Dietary supplements need not, although manufacturers may offer them. Look for those that do. The effectiveness of expired products can not be guaranteed, so dispose of them.

  • Store medicines at room temperature. Moisture, heat, and direct light may damage or inactivate medications. Because of humidity, the bathroom may not be the best place to store drugs.

  • Keep medicines in their original containers. That way, you can check expiration dates, dose requirements, treatment regimens, and warnings.

  • Know the active ingredients in the drugs you take. That helps you prevent overdosing with other medications with the same active ingredients.

  • Store your medicine safely. Keep medicines tightly closed and out of reach of children.

Three types of drug interactions

  • Drug-drug interactions. These can occur when two or more drugs react with each other. For example, mixing a sleeping pill and an allergy pill can slow your reactions more than either would do alone.

  • Drug-food/beverage interactions. The food you eat or beverages you drink can react with the drugs you take. For example, a person taking a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor, a class of drugs used to treat certain types of mental depression (brand names of two of these are Parnate and Nardil), should not eat foods containing high concentrations of the amino acid tyramine, found in red wine, some cheeses, and meat. MAO inhibitors work by blocking the action of the chemical MAO in the nervous system. A side effect is that they also block the breakdown of tyramine. Tyramine builds up in the body and can cause a rapid and dangerous rise in blood pressure.

  • Drug-condition interactions. An existing medical condition can make certain drugs harmful. A man with an enlarged prostate and symptoms of benign prostatic hypertrophy who takes a medication with atropine or scopolamine or some antihistamines could have sudden acute urinary retention, which means an inability to empty the bladder.

Finding the facts

Before you try an OTC drug or dietary supplement, ask your doctor or pharmacist if drug interactions are possible. To make smart decisions, you can find a wealth of product and treatment information on the Web -- but stick to respected sites. Here are a few: