Multiple pills and bottles are part of today’s lifestyle.

Understand the Risks of Polypharmacy and Manage Your Prescriptions Safely

Taking several prescription drugs at the same time can increase your risk for serious side effects and dangerous drug interactions.

Medications are designed to help us manage many of our health conditions and make it easier for us to live full and healthy lives. Many of us, including many Veterans, take medications for a number of important reasons – to reduce our blood pressure, relieve chronic pain, lower our cholesterol and more.

But taking too many drugs or taking drugs that interact badly with each other can be dangerous and ineffective. Talk with your health care provider, and learn more about polypharmacy. Understanding the potential risks involved with taking multiple medications simultaneously and learning some tips can help ensure that you’re managing your medications safely and effectively.

What Is Polypharmacy?

Polypharmacy is generally described as the use of multiple drugs to treat diseases and other health conditions. The definition used by the National Library of Medicine is the use of five or more medications. It’s most common among older adults with several chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, heart disease, depression, diabetes and hypertension. When you’re treating multiple conditions or seeing a number of providers or specialists, it can be easy to end up with several different medications to help you manage your health.

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30% of U.S. adults in their 60s and 70s have used five or more prescription drugs in the previous 30 days. Taking several prescription drugs at the same time can increase your risk for serious side effects and dangerous drug interactions, so it’s important for you and your health care team to work together so you can safely manage your medications.

How Can Polypharmacy Affect My Health?

Taking multiple drugs may be essential to your over health and well-being, but polypharmacy can affect your health in negative ways as well. Here are some examples of how polypharmacy may impact you:

  • Adverse drug reactions – Certain drugs can cause bad side effects, including some drugs that increase your risk of falls and cognitive impairment. In other instances, drug doses may cause adverse reactions in older patients, since it can take their kidneys longer to clear medications from the body.
  • Dangerous drug interactions – Dangerous drug interactions can occur when two or more drugs don’t work well together. Drug interactions often land people in the emergency room. In other instances, a medication designed to treat one condition may worsen another one or create a new health concern.
  • Strain on patients and their families – Managing multiple prescriptions, ensuring you get refills in a timely manner, remembering how much and how often to take each drug can create a lot of additional stress and worry for patients.
  • Cascading drug prescriptions – Sometimes when you take a medication that causes a particular side effect, you wind up on another drug to manage the side effect. That drug may cause an additional health issue that leads to more medications, creating a cascading effect. For example, if your primary care provider prescribes a high blood pressure medication that causes you to urinate more frequently, you may end up at a urologist who prescribes you something to treat your incontinence. But maybe that medication causes you to experience memory trouble or confusion. This may lead you to a specialist who wants to start you on a dementia medication, and so on.

Tips for Managing Your Medications Safely and Effectively

No matter how many medications you’re taking, it’s important to work with your health care provider to understand how to manage them effectively and safely. Here are some tips that anyone can use:

  • Talk to your health care provider. If you’re taking multiple medications, ask your health care provider to complete a medication review with you.
    • Go through each medication you’re on, ask about the benefits and potential side effects, the necessity for taking it, how different drugs may interact with each other, any symptoms you may be experiencing and anything else you’re concerned about.
    • Discuss any supplements or over-the-counter medications as well. Even these can have major side effects when combined with other drugs you’re taking.
    • Ensure you’re only taking the medications you need to live a full and healthy life. Maybe you’re taking something that you don’t need anymore or something you’ve learned to treat in other ways. Maybe you’re taking two medications when one might solve multiple health concerns.
  • Keep communication clear and consistent. Make sure you’re asking questions and communicating with each of your health care providers. If you have more than one provider, discuss each of your health conditions and what you’re taking with each provider. Discuss when new symptoms appear, as they may be a side effect to a certain medication.
  • Don’t stop taking medications on your own. Changing a dosage or deciding not to take a certain medication can be dangerous. Talk to your health care provider before you make any changes to your medications.
  • Make a medication list. You can manage your medications more safely when you know exactly what you’re taking. Make a list of each medication, how often you take it, what the prescribed dosage is, how long you’re supposed to take it, etc. This can be shared with any provider or pharmacist you see. Keep it as up to date as possible and be sure to include supplements and over-the-counter medications as well.
  • Regularly review your medication list. Make it a habit. It can be done once a year at a designated time, such as during an annual wellness exam with your health care provider, or after you’ve had a treatment or procedure. It can be done when a new symptom appears, or if you lose or gain a lot of weight, which may impact your prescription dosages. When you review your medications, you and your health care provider may find that all of them are necessary and correct, but it’s still important to ensure you’re taking the best possible medications to treat your conditions, the most appropriate dosages and drugs with the least amount of side effects.African American woman organizing medication at home.
  • Try to keep all your prescriptions at one pharmacy. This may not be possible for everyone, but it can be helpful if one pharmacy has a complete list of all the medications you’re prescribed. A pharmacist can spot a red flag if there’s a potential for a bad drug interaction.
  • Use a medication organizer. Find an easy way to keep track of your medications and ensure you’re taking each one as prescribed.
  • Try non-medication solutions. Medications can be an essential part of our health and wellness routines, helping us to manage cholesterol or high blood pressure, keeping our diabetes regulated and much more. But it’s also OK to ask your provider if there is another way to treat certain health issues you’re experiencing. For example, are there dietary changes you can make to manage your cholesterol? Can you use mindfulness or yoga for insomnia? Would acupuncture help you manage your chronic pain? These are alternative or complementary approaches to health and wellness. For more information, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Whole Health page, as well as A Closer Look at Alternative Wellness Techniques for more information.
  • Access helpful resources. Explore other resources to help you learn more.

Managing your prescriptions safely and effectively is key to ensuring you’re doing your part to protect your health and wellness.

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