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Most of the individuals we support take one or more medications which are often a critical part of a good outcome or even for continued life. As a part of responsible supportive care it is important to be aware of the potential negative effects that many medications may have. All medications have negative side effects. Some have more than others.

“An adverse drug reaction (abbreviated ADR) is a term that describes harm associated with the use of a given medications at a normal dosage during normal use. ADRs may occur following a single dose or prolonged administration of a drug, or result from the combination of two or more drugs. The meaning of this expression differs from the meaning of “side effect”, as this last expression might also imply that the effects can be beneficial.

“…in 2009, there were nearly 4.6 million drug-related visits to U.S. emergency rooms nationwide,8 with more than half due to adverse reactions to prescription medications – most of which were being taken exactly as prescribed.9 When you add in the growing numbers of people who are using these drugs recreationally or due to addiction, you begin to see the magnitude of the problem that the pharmaceutical industry is propagating”.


Specific statistics regarding negative outcomes due to adverse medication effects are surprisingly difficult to locate, even from sources such as the CDC. The easiest information to locate involves statistics about the number of deaths related to accidental or intentional (also referred to as, the patient’s fault) overdose with prescription painkillers. These now cause more deaths annually than use of all Schedule 1 (illegal with no therapeutic benefit) medications combined.

Due to the very real potential for aversive medication effects people should only take medications that provide a definite benefit.

While prescription medications need to be managed by a physician, family members, guardians and other providers of support and services have a very important role to play when it comes to medication safety. Caregivers have the distinct advantage of proximity to the person on a regular basis and they have a much better chance of noticing subtle changes that may indicate problems. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure the safest possible environment.

  1. Know each of the medications the person is taking, including over-the-counter and herbal medications. Most individuals with specialized needs take more than one type of medication. While there can be adverse effects with the use of even a single medication, the likelihood increases dramatically with multiple drugs. The fact that some medications may be obtained without a prescription does not make them safe, particularly when taken in combination with other drugs. Herbal medications and other supplements are not held to the same requirements with regard to standardization of dosage. The effects of these agents, particularly when taken with other drugs, are in many cases less well known and can be unique to the drug combination and/or the person.
  2. Know the specific reason each medication or supplement is being used. This sounds foolishly simple but it is very important. If the medication is not having the intended effect it is important to convey this information to the prescriber so appropriate changes can be made. In many cases individuals have been continued on medications unnecessarily because no one recalls whey they began taking them in the first place. Why risk the potential negative effects of a medication, not to mention the additional expense, when the medication is completely unnecessary?
  3. Keep track of changes in dosage. The most likely times for medications to exhibit negative effects are when the medication is initiated, discontinued or when dosages of the medication are changed.
  4. Familiarize individuals and/or their caregivers with the known side-effects of each of their medications. Dry mouth, constipation, bruising, dizziness, uncontrolled abnormal movements, behavioral changes and many, many other side-effects need to be reported to the prescriber at the earliest possible time. Encourage medication users and/or their caregivers to trust their gut when it comes to reporting their concerns. People are not obliged to stick to the listed side-effects of the medications they take and have been known on occasion to make up their own.
  5. Be a good advocate. Due to the very real potential for aversive medication effects people should only take medications that provide a definite benefit. While it is inappropriate to dictate care to the prescriber, all but the most unreasonable physicians will take a few moments to listen to concerns of their patients or their guardians. Negative outcomes can often be traced back to a failure to communicate valuable information to the prescriber.
  6. Follow each of the above steps not just for the individuals you serve but also for yourself and your loved ones. While people with numerous health issues are more likely to experience complications with medications, anyone can have problems, up to and including death. In many cases this is preventable with a small degree of vigilance. 
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