Half of us take at least one daily prescription drug.
The figures are startling. More than a quarter of us take at least three drugs regularly, according to a recent survey and many pensioners take five or more. Although many people won’t take any drug unless it’s essential, over 1.1 billion prescriptions are issued each year in England alone, at a cost of £17.4 billion — numbers that are rising by about 5% a year. Brits also spent another £2.47 billion on over-the-counter medicines for pain, coughs, colds, sore throats, hay fever, skin problems, insomnia and other ‘minor’ illnesses.
So are we over-medicating life’s problems, instead of finding lifestyle and other solutions?
When Drugs are Good
Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, while UK deaths from coronary heart disease have fallen by 60% since 1961 thanks to better prevention and treatment (falling smoking levels have helped, too). One in seven of us now takes a statin to lower our blood cholesterol levels and millions of us take drugs to lower our blood pressure (although many are still undiagnosed).
Increasing and ageing population means more strokes, kidney damage, circulatory diseases, diabetes, arthritis, digestive problems, urinary, brain and lung disorders; so inevitably prescriptions are rising. Other ‘top 20’ drugs include antidepressants, treatment for asthma, reflux/indigestion and thyroid underactivity, while lives can be saved or transformed by (expensive) drugs for cancer, transplants, HIV, infertility, immune disorders and rare diseases.
When Drugs are Bad
Drugs can have negative as well as positive effects, often due to the way they work for example, anticholinergic drugs that stabilise bladder function can also make the mouth dry or raise eyeball pressure (glaucoma). Side effects may be common, rare, dose-related or only affect people with certain other conditions; full-blown allergic reactions can affect breathing, circulation and can even be fatal. Drugs can also interact with each other to produce dangerous or unpredictable side effects, or be contraindicated (unsafe) in people with particular conditions, such as abnormal heart rhythms or kidney problems.
So, Should You Take Less?
If you take several drugs it can be difficult to remember to take them all properly; many patients take more or fewer than it says on the label because they feel better doing so, they mistrust drugs, don’t like being dependent on medication or simply get it wrong. Accidental overdoses can be hazardous and some drugs must be carefully monitored with blood tests, while taking too little may bring disadvantages and little benefit.
Stopping medication sometimes feels scary, but teams of GPs and specialists safely discontinued treatment in a third of elderly people taking eight or more daily medicines. You should never adjust or stop medication without speaking to your own doctor first, as this could have serious unforeseen consequences.
7 Questions To Ask Yourself And Your Doctor
1. What benefit can I expect from this medicine? How likely is it to work for me?
2. Would lifestyle changes be as effective and/or worth making as well?
3. What’s the alternative? For example — counselling, physiotherapy, surgery or no treatment at all?
4. What are the side effects? How serious are they and how often do they occur?
5. How exactly should I take them and what should I do if I think there’s a problem?
6. Can I stop any of my other drugs?
7. Will I actually take them? Unused medicines costs the UK around £300 million a year
E291 – Are We Proceeding on Too Many Drugs? www.diabetic.today