February 16, 2017

6 lifesaving tips when taking medication

pharma plate

More than 1,800 Australians died from drug overdoses in 2019 – the majority of which were due to pharmaceutical drugs. This number does not include the many other non-fatal overdoses that occur each year.1

Many of these overdose deaths (67%) were unintentional or accidental.1

Just because a pharmaceutical drug is prescribed doesn’t make it safe. With any medication, but particularly opioids and benzodiazepines, there’s a risk of potential dependence (addiction) and problematic drug use.2

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’re 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 a complete 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

1. 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 safely 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 – the longer you take it the higher dose you need to get the same effect. Your risk of experiencing side effects also increases the longer you take a medication. As a general guide, strong painkillers shouldn’t be used for longer than three days in a row2 and medication like Valium® shouldn’t be used regularly for longer than four weeks.3

Consider the many alternative treatments to taking addictive medication.

2. Follow instructions from your doctor or pharmacist

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

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 alternative treatments to addictive medication, and if necessary, get a second opinion.

3. Avoid mixing medication with alcohol

Strong painkillers and medications like Valium® should never be mixed with alcohol. This combination can slow down your central nervous system and breathing. Having them in your body at the same time puts you at risk of side effects 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 are upfront about possible side effects than not understand why your work is suffering or, even worse, cleaning up after an accident.

6. 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 withdrawal and find an alternative treatment if you develop a dependence. Don’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.

More information

  • Help and Support ·
  • Call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 for free and confidential advice, information and counselling about alcohol and other drugs
  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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