The Scary Truth About Sharing Pills
Dr. Orrange ticks off a few more of the dangers. "The most common problem we see is people sharing antibiotics," she says. "But it's often not the right antibiotic, or they take only a partial course, so they're creating drug-resistant bacteria." Then there are the ADHD drugs, which can cause spikes in blood pressure in patients with hypertension or when combined with certain antidepressants. Taking sleeping pills with anti-anxiety drugs can amp up the effect of both, making driving risky the next day -- or even, in extreme instances, lead to fatal oversedation. Mixing pain relievers can be hazardous, too. "People come in saying, 'I took a Tylenol, and it wasn't strong enough, so I took my friend's Vicodin,'" says Dr. Orrange. Both meds contain acetaminophen -- and acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of liver failure in the United States.
Acetaminophen, of course, is available over the counter. That brings up an argument that sharers often make: The boundaries regarding which drugs really need a doctor's supervision aren't always clear. Nondrowsy antihistamines, for instance, used to require a scrip; now they don't. Also, some drugs that are prescription-only in the United States (like codeine-based pain relievers or benzodiazepine anxiety meds) are available over the counter in other countries. But the FDA is cautious for a reason, says Dr. Orrange. "Remember that weight-loss drug, Meridia, that was pulled from the market after it was found to cause cardiac problems? Sometimes tighter regulation isn't a bad thing."
Another reason to get your drugs from an actual doctor: You may not have the ailment you think you have. Anxiety, for example, can be a symptom of anything from a thyroid disorder to a heart attack, neither of which can be effectively treated with Xanax. And then there are dosing issues, says pharmacist Armon Neel, Jr., author of Are Your Prescriptions Killing You? For example, the dose of Macrobid that cures a young woman's bladder infection can trigger dementia in a 70-year-old. "An older person's kidneys don't clear this medication as quickly," Neel explains.
"By passing along medication, you're depriving someone of the help of a professional who's trained to prescribe it," says Kim Dennis, MD, medical director of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in Chicago. "And you're putting yourself in the position of potentially harming your friend."
Dr. Dennis points to a 2011 federal report showing that drug poisonings now nearly equal car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Some 36,500 Americans died from overdoses in 2008, the latest year for which numbers are available; of those incidents, more than 40 percent involved prescription painkillers. Another report showed that the 10 drugs leading to the most emergency room visits in 2009 included commonly shared medications like anti-anxiety drugs (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin); opioid painkillers (Vicodin, OxyContin); and the sleeping pill Ambien. The study doesn't distinguish between those who had prescriptions and those who didn't. But many doctors can cite examples of innocent borrowers who made a fatal error.
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