Are you at risk? Why you need to know your medication’s active ingredient

Experts are encouraging Australians to familiarise themselves with the active ingredient in the medication they take. Source: Pexels

It’s not uncommon for over-60s to take a variety of medications for their health needs and while many are familiar with the brand name, alarming new research shows people could be putting their health at risk by not knowing their medication’s active ingredient – the chemical within a drug or medicine that makes it work.

As announced in the 2018-19 Federal Budget, most medication in Australia is now prescribed by the active ingredient rather than the brand name, with not-for-profit organisation NPS MedicineWise warning people to familiarise themselves with them and to know the difference between them and the medication’s name.

Experts warn that the same active ingredient can come in different forms, such as in tablets or liquid medicines, and can also be sold under different brand names. Knowing the active ingredient is vital so people don’t unknowingly put their health at risk or accidentally overdose.

“Knowing what the active ingredient is in a medicine is an important part of being medicinewise – and being safe when you take your medicines,” NPS MedicineWise Chief Executive Officer Steve Morris said in a statement. “Taking more than one medicine with the same active ingredient may mean that you are accidentally taking too much of that active ingredient.”

He added: “This can have a number of unintended consequences such as the medicines not working as well, increased risk of side effects, and increased chance of harm.”

The results of a YouGov Galaxy survey, released on Monday to mark the start of Be Medicinewise Week, showed that just 22 per cent of people who record information about the medication they take know the active ingredient, while half said they recorded the brand name of their medicine. Similarly, around half of people said they spoke to a health professional about how much medicine they needed, how long they needed to take it and possible side effects, but only 16 per cent said they talked to their doctor about the active ingredient.

The survey, which included responses from 1,037 adults, also found that 31 per cent of Australians who take two or more medications keeps a list of their prescription, over-the-counter and complimentary medications. Just 26 per cent only keep a list of their prescription medication and 43 per cent said they only recorded some or none of the medication they take.

“Keeping track of all your medicines can help reduce the risk of medicine interactions and double-ups, and can help you get the most out of your medicines, safely,” Morris said. “A medicines list needs to include medicines that have been prescribed by a health professional, as well as anything else you take for your health.”

This also needs to include any vitamins and herbal medicines and any information in a list can help to reduce the risk of medicine interactions – especially if starting a new one. There are various tools available to help Australians keep on top of their medication and to make recording drug information as easy as possible. In addition to keeping a list, MedicineWise has an app which can store and record a person’s medication, schedule reminders and provide additional information about any drug a person is taking. The app can also be used to help carers manage their loved one’s medications.

NPS MedicineWise also has a hotline, 1300 633 424, which provides people with information about prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines, while people can also talk to their health professional directly about the medication and active ingredients in them. The latest warning about active ingredients come a month after research published in the Medical Journal of Australia found older people who take five or more at the same time can increase the risk of side effects, more frequent hospital admissions and falls.

Researchers analysed a 10 per cent random sample of people eligible for medicines listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2017. They found there was a 52 per cent increase in the number of people taking five or more medications between that time frame, with numbers rising to around 935,240 people in 2017.

People in their 80s were most likely to be using more than five medications – which could actually be putting their health at risk instead of helping them.

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