February 16, 2017

6 lifesaving tips when taking medication

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Your prescription medications can be addictive, so take care.

No medications are completely safe. The number of Australians overdosing on pharmaceutical drugs has now overtaken the road toll,1 the majority of these are accidental. Medications are also causing many unnecessary side effects — including addiction — in an increasing number of Australians.

Am I taking addictive medication?

Addictive medication is generally prescribed for pain, stress, anxiety and insomnia. Check the ingredients on the packet of any medications you are taking. If they include any of the drugs listed below, then it’s potentially addictive. Click on the links below to find out more, but also talk to your doctor as this isn’t an exhaustive list.

  • Codeine (Panadeine Forte®, Panamax Co®, Aspalgin®, Codral Cold & Flu Original®, Nurofen Plus®, Mersyndol® and Mersyndol Forte®, Panalgesic®)
  • Oxycodone (xynorm®, OxyContin®, Endone®, Proladone®, Targin®)
  • Fentanyl (Actiq®, Sublimaze®, Durogesic®)
  • Benzodiazepines (including diazepam, oxazepam, nitrazepam, temazepam, alprazolam – a popular brand name is Valium®)

Tips for taking potentially addictive medications safely

Ask your doctor early how you can reduce your intake

Medication can play an important role in helping you to recover from injury and trauma. The trick is to cut down or stop taking addictive medications as early as possible.

When addictive medications are used regularly over a long period the negative side effects can often outweigh the benefits.

This is because the effectiveness of many medications reduces over time. However, your risk of experiencing side effects increases the longer you take medication.

As a general guide, strong painkillers shouldn’t be used for longer than 3 days in a row2 and medication like Valium® shouldn’t be used regularly for longer than 4 weeks.3

Consider the many alternative treatments to taking medication.

Don’t try to cut back your tablets without talking with your doctor, especially if you’ve been talking them for a while. You could delay your recovery, or experience withdrawal and end up in hospital.

Follow instructions from your doctor or pharmacist

Taking pharmaceutical drugs can be risky. That’s why we have highly trained professionals dispensing them. If your medication isn’t working, talk to a doctor or pharmacist rather than increasing your dosage beyond what's been recommended. If you’re finding it difficult to see a health professional, call HealthDirect 1800 022 222 any time day or night.

However, you have the right to question your doctor, consider the alternative treatments to medication, and if necessary, to get a second opinion. This is especially important given the current over prescription of many drugs in Australia.

Avoid mixing medication with alcohol

Strong painkillers and medications like Valium® should never be mixed with alcohol. They all slow down your central nervous system and breathing. So having them in your body at the same time puts you at risk of things like blacking out and overdosing.

If you’re taking other medication, make sure your doctor or pharmacist is aware. This will help them make the best recommendation when mixing drugs, and to minimise any negative side effects.

Only take medication prescribed for you

Never take medication prescribed for someone else or restart an old prescription without consulting your doctor first.

Our tolerance to drugs can change over time and varies between people.

That’s why doctors and pharmacists ask us so many questions before prescribing a drug. If you take more or less than is right for you, or you're mixing medication without medical guidance, then you risk negative side effects or the drug not working.

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Be clear what you can and can’t do while taking medication

Medication can affect your ability to drive and operate machinery, look after children, work, and even things like swimming.

Side effects of painkillers and relaxant-type medication include: drowsiness, irritability, mood swings, depression, muscle tension, headaches, difficulty sleeping, stomach and bowel problems including constipation, reduced sex drive and fertility.

Make sure you understand the possible side effects of the medication and then make any necessary arrangements while you’re taking it.

This might include organising childcare, using public transport and talking to your employer about alternative duties.

Employers are often more understanding than you may expect. They would prefer you to be upfront about possible side effects than not understanding why your work is suffering or, even worse, cleaning up after an accident.

Consult with your doctor or pharmacist regularly

Keep asking your doctor or pharmacist if you can cut back or stop taking addictive medication.

You don’t have to wait until your medication has run out to see your doctor. You might not need to finish the bottle or packet, especially if you’re trying other treatments like physiotherapy, counselling or relaxation techniques.

Make regular appointments to have these discussions, and get a second opinion if you need more options.

They can help you withdraw and find an alternative treatment. You shouldn’t blame yourself, everyone’s bodies are different. One person may become addicted to a drug after only a couple of days, while another person may never become addicted.

Addiction is more common than you think and can affect anyone.
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More information

  1. Transport Accident Commission. 2017. Lives Lost - Year to Date Daily lives lost update 2017 Coroner’s Prevention Unit. Attachment C: Coroner’s Prevention Unit Data Summary, Finding Without Inquest into the Death of Frank Edward Frood . s.l. : Coroner’s Court of Victoria, 2016
  2. NPS Medwise. 2016 Fact sheet - Safe prescribing and supply of opioid medicines, Surry Hills
  3. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. 2015. Prescribing drugs of dependence in general practice, Part B – Benzodiazepines, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Melbourne.

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