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Drug Interactions: Reducing Your Risk

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Updated August 25, 2014

Drug Interactions: Reducing Your Risk
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What Is a Drug Interaction?

Drug interactions occur when one drug interacts with another drug that you are taking or when your medications interact with what you eat or drink. Drug interactions can change the way your medications act in your body. Drug interactions can make your medications less effective or they can cause unexpected and potentially dangerous side effects.

Your risk of having a drug interaction increases with the number of prescription and over-the-counter medications that you use. Moreover, the type of medications you take, your age, diet, disease, and overall health can all affect your risk. The elderly are at greater risk for drug interactions than younger adults since a larger proportion of seniors take prescription medications or over-the-counter products.

There are three important types of drug interactions:

Drug-drug interactions occur when two or more drugs interact with each other. Interactions can occur with prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and alternative medications such as supplements and herbal products.

Some examples of drug-drug interactions include:

  • Mixing a prescription sedative to help you sleep with an over-the-counter antihistamine for allergies can cause daytime drowsiness and make driving or operating machinery dangerous.
  • Combining aspirin with a prescription blood thinner such as Plavix (clopidogrel) can cause excessive bleeding.
  • Some over-the-counter antacids interfere with the absorption of antibiotics into the bloodstream. Certain medications used to treat fungal infections can cause serious side effects when combined with cholesterol-lowering medications such as Lipitor (atorvastatin).
  • The herbal supplement ginkgo bilboa can cause bleeding if taken with aspirin.

Drug-food interactions occur when a drug interacts with something you eat or drink.

Some examples of drug-food interactions include:

  • Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, can interfere with the absorption of antibiotics into the bloodstream.
  • More than 50 prescription drugs are affected by grapefruit juice. Grapefruit juice inhibits an enzyme in the intestine that normally breaks down certain drugs and hence allows more of a medication to enter the blood stream.
  • Vegetables containing vitamin K, such as broccoli, kale and spinach, can decrease the effectiveness of drugs, such as Coumadin (warfarin), given to prevent blood clotting.
  • Mixing alcohol with some drugs is particularly dangerous. Alcohol interacts with most antidepressants and with other drugs that affect the brain. The combination can cause fatigue, dizziness, and slow reactions. A small amount of beer, wine, or liquor can increase your risk of stomach bleeding or liver damage when mixed with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and medications used to treat pain and fever. These drugs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen.

Drug-condition interactions may occur when a medication interacts with an existing health condition.

Some examples of drug-condition interactions include:

  • Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine found in many cough and cold preparations, can increase blood pressure and may be dangerous for people with hypertension.
  • Beta blockers, such as Toprol XL (metoprolol) and Tenormin (atenolol), used to treat high blood pressure and certain types of heart disease can worsen the symptoms of asthma and COPD.
  • Diuretics, such as Hydrodiuril (hydrochlorothiazide), can increase blood sugar in people with diabetes.

What Can I Do to Help Prevent Drug Interactions?

  • Before starting any new prescription drug or over-the-counter drug, talk to your primary healthcare provider or pharmacist. Make sure that they are aware of any vitamins or supplements that you take.
  • Make sure to read the patient information handout given to you at the pharmacy. If you are not given an information sheet, ask your pharmacist for one.
  • Check the labels of your medications for any warnings and look for the "Drug Interaction Precaution". Read these warnings carefully.
  • Make a list of all your prescription medications and over-the-counter products, including drugs, vitamins, and supplements. Review this list with all healthcare providers and your pharmacist.
  • If possible, use one pharmacy for all your prescription medications and over-the-counter products. This way your pharmacist has a record of all your prescription drugs and can advise you about drug interactions and side effects.

Where Can I Find Information About Drug Interactions for My Medications?

Drugs A to Z: This drug guide has in depth information about several thousand prescription and over-the-counter medications. Each drug profile in the guide has a page with information about drug interactions.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The FDA is responsible for monitoring drug interactions and side effects, and assuring that drugs sold in the United States are safe. The FDA website has useful information about drug safety issues

 

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