Medication errors: Cut your risk with these tips

Medication errors are preventable. Your best defense is asking questions and being informed about the medications you take.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Medication errors refer to mistakes in prescribing, dispensing and giving medications. They injure hundreds of thousands of people every year in the United States. Yet most medication errors can be prevented. How can you protect yourself and your family?

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of a medication error is to take an active role in your own health care. Learn about the medications you take — including possible side effects. Never hesitate to ask questions or share concerns with your doctor, pharmacist and other health care providers.

What exactly are medication errors?

Medication errors are preventable events due to the inappropriate use of medications. Medication errors that cause harm are called preventable adverse drug events. If a medication error occurred, but didn't hurt anyone, it's called a potential adverse drug event.

An example of a medication error is taking an over-the-counter product that contains acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) when you're already taking a prescription pain medicine that contains this exact ingredient. This mistake could cause you to take more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen, putting yourself at risk of liver damage.

Another example of a possible medication error is taking a depression medication called fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) with a migraine drug called sumatriptan (Imitrex). Both medicines affect levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. Taking them together may lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. Symptoms of the dangerous drug interaction include confusion, agitation, rapid heartbeat and increased body temperature, among others.

How do medication errors happen?

Medication errors can happen to anyone in any place, including your own home and at the doctor's office, hospital, pharmacy and senior living facility. Kids are especially at high risk for medication errors because they typically need different drug doses than adults.

Knowing what you're up against can help you play it safe. The most common causes of medication errors are:

  • Poor communication between your doctors
  • Poor communication between you and your doctors
  • Drug names that sound alike and medications that look alike
  • Medical abbreviations

Know how to prevent medication errors

Knowledge is your best defense. If you don't understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation. Whenever you start a new medication, make sure you know the answers to these questions:

  • What is the brand or generic name of the medication?
  • What is the medication supposed to do? How long will it be until I see results?
  • What is the dose? How long should I take it?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take more than the recommended dose?
  • Are there any foods, drinks, other medications or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • What are the possible side effects? What should I do if they occur?
  • Will this new medication interfere with my other medication(s)? If so, how?

Your doctor can help prevent medication errors by using a computer to enter and print (or digitally send) any prescription details, instead of hand writing one.

Aug. 19, 2017 See more In-depth