Unintentional drug poisonings cause 20,000 or more deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As many as 40 percents of Americans take four or more prescription medications concurrently, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means almost half of Americans have the risk and potential for experiencing harmful drug interactions. Add dietary supplements, alcohol, and certain foods into the mix, and the possibility of a drug interaction is even higher.
Drug interactions refer to ill effects that occur when taking two or more drugs at a time. They may be prescription or non-prescription, and some combinations can be deadly. Drug interaction risk can vary depending on a person’s age, weight, lifestyle, and current illnesses. Interactions can also occur with health supplements, alcohol and some types of food.
The Anatomy of a Drug Interaction
It is crucial to consider the drug interaction risks between the substances that are being taken, as interactions are always possible. Some people mix medications and substances to elicit the desired effect, but in many cases, dangerous side effects are the result.
Drug interactions can occur internally when someone takes two or more similar drugs, resulting in magnified effects. Conversely, ingesting drugs that have opposite properties can cancel out the medical benefit of both. In some cases, one drug can alter the properties or concentration of another.
The combination can also change substances within the body that are normal to its functioning. Some people combine drugs before ingesting them, and the result is a dangerous change in the chemical properties of both substances.
Other Factors Affecting Drug Interactions
Drug interactions can vary widely from person to person; factors such as the rate of absorption, distribution, the person’s metabolism rate, excretion and other factors all have an impact. Because of this, even with known factors, drug reactions tend to be largely unpredictable.
Other common factors that influence drug interaction risk include a person’s age, genetics, diet, the amount of exercise, current medications, underlying diseases and the period between when each drug was taken.
Even when these factors are taken into account, there is no way to guarantee that any drug type will be free of side effects or interactions. Some problems take days, weeks or months to manifest. Some can dissipate on their own while others persist. When a medication is not taken regularly, it is even more difficult to know or anticipate drug interactions.
Persons Most at Risk for Drug Interactions
Older patients usually take more medications than younger persons, and this can increase the chance of adverse interactions. Over 2 million Americans between ages 57 and 85 are at risk for major drug interactions, according to a 2008 study. People are most vulnerable to drug interactions when taking a new drug or ceasing to take a past one.
Drug Interaction Types
The following are some examples of the kinds of drug interactions that can occur:
Drug Interactions Between Drugs
Interactions can occur between prescription medicines as well as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. It is vital to check labels closely and ask a doctor or pharmacist about any known drug interactions that might occur. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is an example of an OTC drug that can be harmful.
Supplements and Drugs
Supplements and vitamins are seen as benign and safe. While this is often true, when combined with drugs, some of them can cause adverse reactions. Supplements like St. John’s wort, ginseng, Ginko Biloba and Vitamin E have all been known to interact with prescription drugs.
The Impact of Food and Alcohol
Food can slow down the absorption of a drug, causing it to be less effective. However, some medicines are to be taken with food so that the stomach doesn’t become irritated.
Drugs can also interfere with the absorption of nutrients from foods, impacting nutritional value. Some drugs artificially increase or decrease a person’s appetite.
Alcohol has a sedating effect and can intensify the drowsiness caused by drugs that are sedatives.
Drugs that Have Known Interaction Issues
Three of the most common prescription drug types prescribed in the U.S. have a host of potential interactions if they are not used correctly:
Blood Pressure Medicines
High blood pressure (hypertension) is commonly treated by diuretics called hydrochlorothiazides. These drugs in effect pull extra water from the body to decrease blood volume. Hydrochlorothiazides (HCTZs) shouldn’t be taken with heart-rhythm medication, as potassium levels can drop to dangerous levels that can cause cardiac arrhythmia can occur.
Glycyrrhizin found in black licorice, and some teas and sweeteners can also impact potassium levels. OTC decongestants can decrease the effectiveness of blood pressure medicines.
Antidepressant Drugs (SSRIs)
SSRIs refer to serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most common drug prescribed for depression. Some of the brand names include Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro, and Wellbutrin. These drugs purport to help elevate serotonin levels and ease depression symptoms.
Unfortunately, they can also have some severe side effects, interactions, and complications. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not uncommon, especially in young adults. Serotonin syndrome can result when a SSRI drug interacts with a pain medication. This condition can be deadly. St. John’s wort can also cause serotonin syndrome.
Statins for Cholesterol
About 24 million Americans take statins to lower cholesterol. They work by halting a liver enzyme that creates cholesterol. Mixing statins with certain drugs or foods and dietary supplements can cause muscle damage and even kidney failure. Oral fungal medication, vitamin B, and grapefruit juice can all be a dangerous mix with statins.
Taking Steps to Prevent Drug Interactions
Being proactive is key to avoiding potentially dangerous drug interactions. All drug labels should be read carefully. A doctor or pharmacy should be consulted if there is any uncertainty about possible medication interactions. All current prescriptions and supplements being taken should be shared with the doctor writing a new prescription.
While the drug companies and doctors have a responsibility to provide key information about drug interactions, patients should also be proactive and ask questions if they have any doubts or confusion.
Drug Interaction Lawsuits
Drug companies, like all businesses, are expected to conduct themselves responsibly. If they don’t, and their actions cause harm, they can and should be held accountable.
If a drug interaction occurs and it could have or should have been avoided, legal recourse may be possible. Adverse drug reactions and unexpected drug interactions are two valid reasons for a personal injury case.
A personal injury attorney can help with navigating options and determine one’s legal rights. The legal system can be daunting, and partnering with a skilled attorney can help. The goal is to ensure that the case is handled in the most professional and efficient manner possible.
Victims can in many cases receive compensation in the form of payment for medical bills and lost wages. They may also collect damages for both physical and mental pain and disfigurement.
If the drug interaction results in a fatality, that person’s family members may sue for wrongful death. For the best outcome, it is extremely important that victims seek the counsel of a qualified lawyer. An attorney who is versed in this type of case can navigate the legal system and maximize the chances for a fair settlement.