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Four Dangers of Sharing Prescription Medications

Sharing medications is usually done with the best intentions.

It’s tempting to share prescriptions with friends or family members to help relieve their symptoms, make them feel better and save money. In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that the prevalence of medication sharing approaches 52 percent.

However, most people don’t realize how quickly things can go wrong. Here are four ways sharing medications can lead to serious and long-lasting consequences.

1. You May Not Be Treating the Right Disease

"Patients assume based on their symptoms that they may need a medication, which in fact they may not,” says Dr. Darshan Parekh, director of Pharmacy at Abington-Jefferson Health. “Their symptoms may have a different root cause, which makes the medication they're sharing inappropriate, or another medication more appropriate for treatment."

Similar symptoms can be caused by different illnesses. For instance, while a cough may be caused by a cold or allergies, it could also be related to a more serious problem like emphysema or congestive heart failure. It’s always better to get examined by a doctor rather than taking the risk of sharing the wrong medication.

2. The Dosage May Be Incorrect

Correct dosage is a critical to ensuring that medications are both safe and effective for the patient. The typical approach doctors take when prescribing is to start “low and slow” – meaning they identify the lowest dose of a medication that will be effective. That dose is increased as needed for the specific patient, creating a customized treatment plan.

If a medication is shared, you may be starting at a higher dose than is actually needed, increasing risk factors and side effects. This can be especially problematic for some patients.

"Doses for many medications are specific to a patient's weight. An elderly patient who may be frailer than the person they share a medication with may be taking a medication that is inappropriate for their weight range," Dr. Parekh advises.

Even seemingly innocuous medications like topical ointments and creams can cause problems. Because skin becomes thinner with aging, that medication may be absorbed quicker in the person sharing it than the prescriber would have intended.

3. Misuse of Antibiotics is Bad for Everyone

One of the biggest areas of concern for the medical community is the misuse and overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials. This type of sharing has a detrimental effect both for the individual and society as a whole.

“Overuse and misuse can lead to the development of bacteria within the community that are resistant to antibiotics,” comments Dr. Parekh. “Essentially, this means we'll eventually run out of the ammunition we need to treat them effectively."

Overusing antibiotics and antimicrobials also creates a greater risk for developing episodes of C. diff, an out-of-control growth of bacteria in the digestive system. C. diff is very difficult to treat and can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and can even lead to death.

4. Pain Medication is More Powerful Than You Think

Pain medications and opioids are among the most dangerous medications to share. Typically, people underestimate how powerful they are. Unfortunately, the consequences are severe.

“A child who receives an adult dose of a pain medication can experience serious side effects. It affects the central nervous system, leading to slowed respiration rate, sedation, and even death," warns Dr. Parekh.

If you have an underlying condition, these pain medications can make them worse. For example, a patient may be prescribed Motrin for pain, but given a higher dose like 800 mg. If a family member shares this medication but has an existing condition, like liver or kidney problems, the effects can be detrimental. They may find themselves in a new disease category after taking that shared medication – such as renal failure.

The smartest approach is to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have an illness before taking any medication, and to never share prescription medications with your friends and family.

For a referral to an Abington - Jefferson Health physician, please call 215-481-MEDI (6334) or search our online directory.

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