Today, there are more than 100,000 over-the-counter medications available to treat common ailments from headaches to indigestion. Most Americans know, popping an ibuprofen will ease daily muscle aches — but what most don’t know is just how important it is to tell your doctor that you’re doing it. Prolonged use, incorrect dosing or failing to communicate your use could create irreversible damage to your health, or even death.
The truth: These seemingly harmless medications can be inconspicuous killers.
I have cared for thousands of patients during my 25-year career. And while the medical community has known the dangers of mixing over-the-counter medications with certain prescriptions or heart conditions, a new study proves we all may have underestimated the depth of those dangers.
A recent study conducted at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, based on the medical records of more than 60,000 adults who survived a heart incident, illustrates the risks quite plainly — if you’ve survived a heart attack, stroke or any similar heart-related event, and you take ibuprofen or naproxen, it doubles the risk of a second cardiac event, internal bleeding and even death.
We’ve known for some time that using NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs commonly known as ibuprofen or naproxen, for an extended period of time increased these risks, but it was generally believed that short-term use posed little danger. After carefully reviewing the results of the study, it is clear that any use of NSAIDs for these patients no longer is considered safe and should be avoided.
Over-the-counter medication dangers don’t stop with just NSAIDS. The Institute of Medicine says that 1.5 million Americans are harmed each year by medication errors because of inappropriate dosing, incorrect combinations of medications or frequent use of certain medications. Keep digging into the medical journals and you’ll find that 70 percent of Americans are not following the directions on the box. Just because you can buy medications over the counter doesn’t mean they are harmless.
My advice? Before taking any medication, do your homework. Here are a few rules I tell my patients: Follow directions; only take medicines as prescribed by your doctor or as the label instructs; make sure your health care providers know all the over-the-counter medications you are taking; resist the temptation to take a higher dose because your aches and pains seem a bit worse on a particular day; and never take medicine more frequently or for longer periods than recommended.
What you don’t know can hurt you.
Dr. Craig Brett is a cardiologist at Mercy Hospital in Portland.