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Are You a Prescription Sharer?

1 in 4 Americans Raises Drug Risks by Sharing Prescriptions
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 29, 2008 -- One in four Americans shares prescription drugs with others -- and opens a Pandora's box of risk.

This suggestion of widespread drug sharing comes from a pilot study in which researchers interviewed 700 people in 10 U.S. cities. It's the first study to take a broad look at what people say about "loaning" and "borrowing" prescription medications.

About 23% of the people interviewed loaned medicines, and about 27% borrowed them, find Richard C. Goldsworthy, PhD, of Academic Edge Inc. and colleagues.

"Whether this sharing is beneficial or detrimental depends on what is shared and for what reason," Goldsworthy tells WebMD. "But we found a lot of situations where sharing can be detrimental -- in ways we don't always think about."

(Have you ever shared medications with or borrowed them from a friend or family member? Why? Talk with others on WebMD's Health Cafe message board.)

Art Poremba, MS, manager of ambulatory pharmacy services at the University of Michigan health service, knows people sometimes share their drugs, but he's surprised at how many appear to do it. Poremba was not involved in the Goldsworthy study.

"This bypasses all the key safety elements in our health care system," Poremba tells WebMD. "This amounts to self-diagnosis and self-prescribing. It could be people end up with inappropriate drugs, with inappropriate dosages, with something someone is allergic to, or with the totally wrong drug for what the person is taking it for."

Goldsworthy's team found that the drugs most often shared are:

  • Allergy drugs (25.3% of respondents)
  • Pain drugs (21.9% of respondents)
  • Antibiotics (20.6% of respondents)

Antibiotic sharing particularly worries Goldsworthy.

"If people are sharing antibiotics, if they have enough left over, it means they didn't take the drug as prescribed -- so now they have some antibiotic-resistant bugs left over," he says. "And the person they share with isn't getting a full dose, so they'll have more drug-resistant bugs. With one in five people sharing antibiotics, it's reasonable that this contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections."

Who's sharing the drugs? According to the study:

  • More whites (23%) and Hispanics (26%) share drugs than do African-Americans (13.5%).
  • More women (24%) than men (12%) share drugs.

What makes people more willing to share drugs? The study shows that:

  • 39.4% of respondents said they'd share drugs with a family member.
  • 38.6% of respondents said they'd share drugs if they had a prescription for it, but ran out or didn't have it with them.
  • 37.9% of respondents said they'd share drugs if they had an emergency.

Prescription Drug Sharing Dangers

What's wrong with sharing prescription drugs? Plenty. Goldsworthy and colleagues point to a number of risks:

  • People who borrow drugs instead of seeing a doctor may miss out on effective treatment for what truly ails them.
  • Borrowed drugs may not work if not taken at the right dosage, for the right length of time. People who think drugs won't help them may give up on treatments that would be effective at the right dosage.
  • Borrowing antibiotics -- reported by one in five respondents -- isn't likely to work, but is likely to promote the growth of drug-resistant infections.
  • Drugs may have much more serious side effects for the borrower than for the person to whom they were originally prescribed.

"If you take shared medicines, you should tell your doctor about it, because that will affect how well your doctor can tell what's wrong with you," Goldsworthy says. "If you give someone else a medication, at least pass on the important warnings that come with it. If you borrow a medication, be aware you may not be learning all you need to know about the risks."

Goldsworthy and colleagues report their findings in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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