Can Your Medication Make You Sicker?

photo of large pile of a variety of pills - can your medication make you sickerMedications are a common treatment. So common in fact, many patients take multiple medications. Although medication is supposed to make you better, that is not always the case. Can your medication make you sicker? Unfortunately, yes. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of problems associated with medication.

Americans take a lot of medication!

We take a lot of pills! Researchers estimate that in any given week, 4 out of 5 adults will use prescription medicines, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, or dietary supplements of some sort. Nearly 1/3 of adults will take five or more different medications.

What is an adverse drug reaction (ADR)?

An adverse drug reaction (ADR) occurs when a patient has an unexpected or dangerous reaction to a medication. A patient may develop an ADR after a single dose of medication, from the prolonged use of a drug, or when there is a negative interaction between 2 or more medications.

More specifically, The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) defines an ADR as “any unexpected, unintended, undesired, or excessive response to a drug that:

  • Requires stopping the drug
  • Requires a change in the drug therapy
  • Leads to a modification of dose (except for minor dosage adjustments)
  • Necessitates admission to a hospital
  • Prolongs a stay in a healthcare facility
  • Requires supportive treatment
  • Significantly complicates diagnosis
  • Negatively impacts prognosis
  • Leads to temporary or permanent harm, disability, or death.”

There are several other names for these incidents: adverse drug event (ADE), adverse effect and adverse event. To minimize confusion, this post will refer to these situations as adverse drug reactions, or ADRs.

Side effects and ADRs are not the same thing.

There are defined differences between side effects and ADRs. Pharmacy Times describes the difference between side effects and adverse events in easy to understand terms: adverse events are unintended medication effects that happen when a medication is given correctly, while a side effect is a secondary unwanted effect that occurs due to drug therapy.

What can happen to patients who experience an ADR?

photo nurse taking patient's blood pressure in hospital - can your medication make you sickerThe patient’s health can suffer. Unfortunately, some patients die from an ADR.

There are many physical signs and symptoms of an ADR – far too many to list in this post. However, as examples, patients may suffer from rashes, itching, bleeding, joint pain, heart problems, difficulty breathing, dizziness, depression, confusion and diarrhea.

How do adverse drug reactions occur?

ADRs occur for a number of reasons, including:

  • When patients take too much of a medication. For example, when pharmacists or nurses make errors in dispensing medication. Or when patients take the wrong number of pills at home.
  • When a medication is mixed with something it should not be mixed with, including an additional medication. For example, when a doctor does not have a complete list of all medications being taken by the patient. This can cause one doctor to give a patient a medication that should not be used in conjunction with another medication the patient is already taking.

Are ADRs preventable?

Probably, for most cases. A study reviewed the results of 22 studies on adverse drug reactions and found that:

  • In general, over 50% of ADR cases dealt with by hospitals or emergency departments were preventable.
  • For elderly patients, at least 70% of ADRs were preventable.
  • For patients staying in the hospital, almost 50% of the ADR cases were preventable.

What can you do to minimize your risk of adverse drug reactions?

photo prescription bottleChances are, if you’re not already taking medications, you probably will in the near future. Depending on your diagnosis, you might take a particular medication for years, decades, or even for the rest of your life. And of course you don’t want your medication to make you sicker. Therefore, minimize your risk of an ADR by:

  • Being sure each doctor knows ALL the medications you are taking, including over the counter medications and herbal supplements.
  • Carrying your list of medications with you at all times. You can keep a piece of paper in your wallet, make a note on your cell phone, or use any of the medication apps available (see our Resource page for reviews of medication apps).
  • Asking your pharmacist to review your list of medications, including over the counter and supplements, to determine if there is a potential issue.
  • Being sure you properly understand when and how to take each medication.
  • Setting up a system to make sure your medications are organized, to help you follow your regimen properly.
  • Using an alarm system, on your cell phone, watch or other timer to help you remember to take each medication on time.
  • For complicated medication regimens, use the ZaggoCare Daily Medication Chart to be sure you are properly following your doctors’ orders (scroll down on our Home page for our downloadable chart).

Learn more…

For more tips on reducing your risk of medication-related issues, read these posts:


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