Avoid look-alike medication mistakes

We often receive reports from people who took the wrong medicine or the wrong dose because of mix-ups with products that looked similar. Sometimes people rely on the appearance of tablets, capsules, or packages to identify their medicines, instead of reading the labels carefully. 

Look at these eye drop containers - three completely different medications. With the small print and similar cap colors, pharmacists, doctors and nurses would be hard pressed to tell them apart and their patients can also easily pick up the wrong item. Yet, using the wrong bottle could cause unexpected effects.

The FDA and manufacturers could do a much better job when drugs are approved by assuring product appearance is better differentiated.  But there are lessons for patients and health professionals too. Most people know that reading the label is important, but human nature sometimes leads us to make assumptions and take shortcuts.

In one case, an elderly consumer confused Fosamax with Lipitor. Fosamax is used to treat or prevent osteoporosis while Lipitor is used to lower cholesterol. Both products come as white tablets. The patient was supposed to take Fosamax once a week and Lipitor once a day. However, the consumer took Fosamax every day for several days, thinking it was Lipitor. As a result, the consumer took extra doses of the osteoporosis medicine, which causes heartburn and could risk ulceration in the esophagus. Doses of Lipitor were also missed.

Choosing your medicine based on its appearance, instead of carefully reading the label, could lead to an error that might cause serious harm. Make safe practices a habit. Establish a routine for preparing and taking your medicines and be consistent about reading the label carefully before you take a medicine. If you use pill organizers, check the label of every medicine before filling the slots.

Read the label carefully before buying any non-prescription medicine. Similarities in product names, labels, and packages can be confusing for consumers. Reading the label carefully and asking a pharmacist for advice are ways to be sure you are getting the right medicine.

Many tablets and capsules are marked with identifying letters, numbers, or other symbols. Become familiar with the markings on products that you take regularly. Consider making a note of each medicine's appearance and markings on your list of medicines. Before taking a dose of any medicine, first check the label to make sure you have the right medicine. Then verify that the appearance and the identifying markings on the medicine match what you expect to see. If you notice any differences in markings, check with your pharmacist to verify that you have the correct medicine. Check every medicine carefully whenever you pick up your prescriptions from the pharmacy.

If you have any concerns or if any of the information does not match what you were expecting to see or hear, tell your pharmacist. If you realize that a mix-up with medicines has happened, contact a health professional for advice as soon as possible.

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