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Women Use More Meds Than Thought

And many don't tell doctors about all the drugs and herbs in their medicine closet

TUESDAY, Feb. 24, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Women take more medications and herbal supplements than experts think, new research finds, and they're not likely to tell their doctors about everything that's in their medicine closet.

Such omissions could jeopardize their health and increase the chances of adverse drug interactions or drug ineffectiveness, says study author Timothy Tracy, a professor of experimental and clinical pharmacology at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. His report appears in the Feb. 24 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

In a sample of 567 women from five rural clinics who went to see their gynecologist, 92 percent took prescription medications and 96.5 percent used over-the-counter medicines. In addition, 59.1 percent used herbal supplements.

Among the most common prescription drugs taken by the women were antibiotics, birth control pills, antidepressants and blood pressure medicine.

Over-the-counter drugs most often taken included painkillers, vitamins and antacids.

Peppermint, cranberry, aloe, herbal tea, ginseng, echinacea and St. John's wort were most commonly cited as herbals taken.

Drug interactions between prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines and herbal remedies can be dangerous. St. John's wort, for instance, can interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills.

When it came to telling their doctors about their complete medical regimen, however, the women fell short.

"One of the things that surprised us the most is the number of medications they didn't tell their gynecologist about," Tracy says. "They tended to talk about medications either prescribed by that doctor or for diseases treated by that doctor."

For instance, they might not tell a gynecologist about blood pressure drugs, which were prescribed by their internist, but would mention birth control pills.

While the survey sample included only rural women, Tracy says previous research has found usage patterns are pretty similar in urban women.

The lack of communication surprised Tracy. "You would think that when you go to a provider and they say, what medications are you taking, women would tell all the medications."

The sheer number of prescription drugs used by the patients surprised Tracy, too. In the youngest bracket, women under age 38, 26 percent took four or more prescription medicines in the past year. In the 38-to-55 bracket, 45 percent took four or more, and in the 56 and older bracket, 57 percent took four or more prescription drugs.

The study results don't surprise Michael Cohen, president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. "What this study shows is patients often don't understand what the doctor is saying," Cohen says. "When he asks, are you taking any medications, they think any obstetrical medications [if the gynecologist is asking]."

Women, he adds, "need to understand there can be adverse interactions from medications prescribed by their physicians." It's crucial that each doctor know about all the medicines, both prescription and nonprescription, as well as herbal remedies, that a patient is taking.

Tracy says doctors may have to question patients more closely to get the answers they need. Ideally, he says, they should ask specifically about prescription medicines, over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements, rather than simply asking the patient what medicines she is taking.

More information

For information about how to take medications safely, visit the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, which also has a page on frequently asked questions about medication dangers.

SOURCES: Michael Cohen, R.Ph., Sc.D., president, Institute for Safe Medication Practices, Huntingdon Valley, Pa.; Timothy Tracy, Ph.D., professor, experimental and clinical pharmacology, University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and the University of Minnesota Center of Excellence in Women's Health, Minneapolis; Feb. 24, 2004, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
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