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7 Dangerous Drug Mistakes

Experts explain the dangers of mixing drugs, not checking labels, and other common drug mistakes.

2. Mixing Drugs and Alcohol

"Prescription pain medicines and antianxiety medications such as Valium and Xanax can have an additive effect when mixed with alcohol," says Grissinger. "You won't be alert. Your driving response time will suffer. Don't mix these together."

Another drug that shouldn't be mixed with alcohol: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and alcohol, because it can harm your liver.

Cough and cold preparations with antihistamines shouldn't be mixed with alcohol because they will amplify the sedative effects, Grissinger says. This warning applies to the use of narcotic pain medications, too.

"Be careful mixing alcohol with certain antibiotics," says Jenkins. "The main antibiotic-alcohol interactions are with metronidazole (Flagyl) and the sulfa drugs -- commonly used antibiotics." An example of a sulfa drug is Bactrim.

Mixing metronidazole and alcohol can cause nausea, vomiting, flushing, headache and stomach pain, Jenkins says.

3. Leaving the Doctor's Office Without Enough Information

"When you leave your doctor's office, you need to know the name of the medication and what it is for," says Grissinger. Ask how many times a day you should take it, he adds, and how you might react.

"Ask for written instructions," says Jenkins. "At the doctor's office, people only remember about a third of what the doctors tells them," he says, citing several studies.

4. The Wrong Prescription From the Pharmacy

This isn't always your fault, of course, but there's plenty you can do to reduce the risk. First, how it happens: "A pharmacist may not be able to read the doctor's handwriting," Grissinger says. To remedy this, ask your doctor to write down on the prescription pad what the drug is for. That way, if the drug is one of many with sound-alike, look-alike names, your pharmacist can double-check that he's giving you the right drug by looking at the drug's purpose.

Always check your medications before leaving the pharmacy to be sure it's your name on the bottles, Grissinger says. "If you are picking up a refill, open the bottle in front of the pharmacist and make sure the pills look the same. If they don't, ask why not." It might be as simple as the health plan changed manufacturers, he says, but check to be sure.

5. Using Multiple Pharmacies

"If you go to multiple pharmacies, they can't screen for drug interactions," Grissinger says, because they won't have a complete list of all the medications you are on, as a single pharmacy is likely to keep in its computer. If you use your HMO's ground pharmacy and also use its mail-order service, each may not have a list of the medications filled at the other, he says.

If you insist on using multiple pharmacies due to convenience or cost savings, "show them a list of every medicine you take," Grissinger says.

If you go to another health care professional -- for example, a dermatologist in addition to your primary care doctor -- they should ask you which other medications you are on before prescribing you another. But if they don't, be prepared to tell them. Either way, take a list of your medications and the doses with you, says David W. Bates, MD, chief of the division of general medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Bates served on the Institute of Medicine committee on identifying and preventing medication errors.

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