With cooler weather, flu season and the stress that often comes with the holidays, illnesses are imminent this time of year. As a result, people are taking more pills but may not be considering the harmful interactions that may occur when taking multiple prescription drugs, over the-counter medications, vitamins or herbal supplements. Adverse drug reactions (ADR) are a significant public health issue that in many cases can be avoided.

Unintended Drug Interactions May Be Deadly

It’s common for patients to see different doctors for various conditions, and in turn receive more than one prescription. Unfortunately, patients who have multiple doctors may not receive consistent guidance as to how the medications they are taking interact when taken together.

According to a 2017 Consumer Reports survey, more than half of American adults regularly take a prescription medication – four, on average – increasing the risk of harmful drug interactions. When prescriptions are combined with over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements, the risk increases. Even coffee or tea may be harmful due to caffeine, which can change how a patient may respond to medication. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 2 million serious ADRs, caused from one or multiple drugs, occur every year in the United States, leading to 100,000 deaths. ADRs are the fourth leading cause of death in the country, causing more deaths than pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia and car accidents.

Know What you Are Taking

When it comes to taking medication or other supplements, follow these important tips:

Create a list of the medications and supplements you are taking, and ask your doctors if it’s safe to take all of these things together. Ask your doctors about side effects, the correct time and sequence to take each medication or supplement, and what drugs should be taken with or without food.

Share information with all of your health care professionals, including pharmacists and nurses as well as your doctors. Encourage your health care professionals to communicate with each other. Ongoing coordination between care providers will enable them to make the most appropriate medical decisions for you and give them better access to the most up-to-date information about your course of treatment.

Review your medications on a regular basis with your doctors to determine if they are still needed.

With guidance from a doctor or pharmacist, stay organized by using a dosage schedule and pill box to ensure that medications are taken in the right amount at the right time of day or night.

Don’t Hold Back Information

There may be situations where patients are afraid or embarrassed to talk about their medications, especially when it comes to antidepressants or other drugs used to treat mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness may lead to silence instead of sharing. It’s important for patients to discuss all the medications they are taking with their health care professionals. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and is very common in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, there were an estimated 43 million adults 18 and older with a mental illness, representing nearly 18 percent of all adults in the United States.

Solving the Problem

The dangers of accidental or adverse drug interactions can be avoided with communication. If you head to the doctor for a seasonal illness make sure you tell them about all the medications you are taking so you can enjoy the holidays with family and friends. 


Dr. Cary Schnitzer is the Medical Director for OptumCare Arizona, directing population health initiatives. He lives in North Central Phoenix.