Mayo Clinic Health Library

Medication errors: Cut your risk with these tips

Updated: 10-15-2011

Medication errors may sound harmless, but mistakes in prescribing, dispensing and administering medications injure more than 1 million people a year in the United States. Yet most medication errors can be prevented. How can you protect yourself and your family?

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of being harmed by medication errors is to take an active role in your health care. Learn about the medications you take — including possible side effects. Never hesitate to ask questions or share concerns with your doctor, pharmacist and other health care providers.

Just what are medication errors?

Medication errors are preventable events that lead to medications being used inappropriately. Medication errors that cause harm are called adverse drug events.

An example of a medication error is taking over-the-counter products that contain acetaminophen when you're already taking prescription pain medicine that contains acetaminophen, possibly exceeding the recommended dose and putting yourself at risk of liver damage.

Another example of a possible error is taking sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim (used to treat infection) at the same time as warfarin (a blood thinner). This combination can increase your risk of dangerous bleeding.

How do medication errors happen?

Although medication errors can happen anywhere, including your own home, most occur in doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Knowing what you're up against can help you play it safe. The most common causes of medication errors are:

  • Poor communication between health care providers
  • Poor communication between providers and their patients
  • Sound-alike medication names and medical abbreviations
  • Illegible prescriptions or confusing directions

Communication is key to preventing medication errors

Knowledge is your best defense. If you don't understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation. Whenever you start a new medication, make sure you know the answers to the following:

  • What is the brand or generic name of the medication?
  • What is it supposed to do? How long will it be until I see results?
  • What is the dose? How long should I take it?
  • Are there any foods, drinks, other medications or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • What are the possible side effects? What should I do if they occur?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take more than the recommended dose?
  • Will this new medication interfere with my other medication(s) and how?

Asking questions is essential, but it isn't enough. You also have to share information with your doctor and pharmacist, especially if you're getting a new prescription or seeing a new doctor. Here's what you need to tell your health care providers:

  • The names of all the medications you're taking, including over-the-counter products and supplements
  • Any medications that you're allergic to or that have caused problems for you in the past
  • Whether you have any chronic or serious health problems
  • If you might be pregnant or you're trying to become pregnant

Avoid these mistakes

The following medication errors have happened to real people. Don't make these same mistakes:

  • Confusing eardrops and eyedrops. Always double-check the label. If a medication says "otic," it's for the ears. If it says "ophthalmic," it's for the eyes.
  • Chewing nonchewables. Don't assume chewing a pill is as good as swallowing it. Some medications should never be chewed, cut or crushed. Doing so may change how they're absorbed by the body.
  • Cutting up pills. Never split pills unless your doctor or pharmacist has told you it's safe to do so. Some medications shouldn't be cut because they're coated to be long acting or to protect the stomach.
  • Using the wrong spoon. The spoons in your silverware drawer aren't measuring spoons. To get an accurate dose, use an oral syringe (available at pharmacies) or the dose cup that came with the medication.

Make safety a habit

Get into the habit of playing it safe with these medication tips:

  • Keep an up-to-date list of all your medications, including nonprescription and herbal products.
  • Store medications in their original labeled containers.
  • Save the information sheets that come with your medications.
  • Use the same pharmacy, if possible, for all of your prescriptions.
  • When you pick up a prescription, check that it's the one your doctor ordered.
  • Don't give your prescription medication to someone else and don't take someone else's.

A final word on medication errors

"Don't ask, don't tell" is never a smart policy when it comes to medications and your health. Don't hesitate to ask questions or to tell your health care providers if anything seems amiss. Remember, you're the final line of defense against medication errors.

If despite your efforts you have problems with a medication, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about whether to report it to MedWatch — the Food and Drug Administration safety and adverse event reporting program. Reporting to MedWatch is easy, confidential and secure — and it can help save others from being harmed by medication errors.