Think you know loads about medicine? You may need to think again. We explore some of the common myths about our meds
Natural remedies are safer than drugs
“Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe,” warns Jonathon Clarke, pharmacist and chief executive of Locate A Locum (locatealocum.com).
“Natural remedies do not undergo the same regulation process as drugs, and so their safety and clinical effectiveness is not always known.
“They should be treated in the same way as drugs and only taken when advised by a health professional. And, because natural remedies can interact with drugs, it’s vital to tell your GP or pharmacist if you are taking them.”
You can’t drink alcohol if you’re taking antibiotics
“Drinking in moderation on most antibiotics shouldn’t do you any harm,” explains Jonathon. “However, there are two antibiotics – Metronidazole and Tinidazole – that people need to be aware of. They can react with alcohol and make you very ill.”
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He advises asking your GP or pharmacist about other prescribed antibiotics as all can cause side effects. “In general, I would advise anyone who is sick enough to be taking antibiotics to avoid alcohol because it can make you feel worse,” he adds.
You can stop taking medication for high blood pressure once it has stabilised
“Blood pressure can change multiple times on a daily basis,” warns Jonathon. “Stable blood pressure is a good sign that the medication you are on is working. In some cases, GPs may recommend switching or changing blood pressure medication but it is rare that they will take you off it completely.”
Crush or chew pills to make them easier to swallow
Some medications in tablet form are designed to be released slowly over time, so crushing or chewing them could lead to an overdose or side effects. You should only split pills that are scored down the middle. If you find tablets hard to swallow, take them with a sports cap water bottle – this creates a funnel so the water flushes the tablet down. Or ask about alternatives, such as a liquid, cream or patch.
Paracetamol is harmless
“No drug is completely harmless,” warns Jonathon. “Paracetamol can be a safe and effective drug. However, if taken incorrectly, it can have serious consequences, including death.
“An adult should take no more than eight 500mg tablets in a 24-hour period and be careful not to take the painkiller alongside other medications that include paracetamol (these medications will always carry the message, ‘Warning: contains paracetamol’).
“Check with your GP or pharmacist if it’s safe to take paracetamol while taking medication for other medical conditions – for example, epilepsy.”
Brand names are better
UK shoppers spend a fortune on branded medicines that are identical to generic drugs. “All pharmaceutical drugs have to pass a quality test to go on sale in the UK,” explains Jonathon.
“That basically means that a branded hay fever tablet contains exactly the same drug and strength as the cheaper generic.” You’re usually paying for the colour and style of packaging, though brands do come in a choice of formulations and sometimes the branded drug may contain additional ingredients, such as caffeine to help it dissolve faster.
Painkillers can target specific parts of the body
“Painkillers in tablet form cannot target specific body parts,” explains Jonathon. And an Australian court ruled that drug giant Reckitt Benckiser shouldn’t market Nurofen as specifically tackling back pain, period pain or migraines. Nurofen contains the active ingredient ibuprofen lysine. Jonathan adds: “The only form of painkiller that can target a specific part of the body is a rub or patch that can be applied to an area of pain.”
The flu jab makes you ill
“There is no active virus in the flu jab, so it cannot give you flu,” says Jonathon. However, you may feel feverish or have muscle ache for a few days after having your flu jab – taking a painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can ease this. It is recommended that you do not get your flu jab if you are already displaying flu-like symptoms.
You don’t need to tell your doctor about supplements you take
“Supplements can affect medications you are prescribed,” warns Jonathon. “For example, St John’s wort is a supplement that can be taken for depression but it can cause interactions with other medications that reduce their ability to work properly.
“Always tell your GP or pharmacist if you are taking supplements so they can give you appropriate advice.”
You can take your medication with any drink
You should take the majority of medications with water only, unless you are told otherwise by your GP or pharmacist, says Jonathon.
Ingredients in other drinks, such as fruit juices, could interact with medication. For example, it has been found that warfarin (an anti-coagulant) interacts badly with cranberry juice, and statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) react with grapefruit juice. “Dairy and carbonated drinks can affect how medication is broken down and absorbed by the body, which in turn can make the medication less effective,” he adds.
Nicotine replacement therapy is as addictive as tobacco
According to NHS Choices, most people using nicotine products don’t become dependent on them. In fact, the biggest problem with NRT is that people don’t use enough of it for long enough. “NRT does work and it can double a smoker’s chances of quitting,” says pharmacist Noel Wicks. “The nicotine found in NRT is very different to cigarettes and is delivered more slowly, so they have a lot lower risk of addiction than cigarettes.”
Statins alone will reduce my high cholesterol
Statins are not magic pills – they’re drugs with side effects, says consultant cardiologist Aseem Malhotra. The most important, and often overlooked, intervention in managing cholesterol is what you can do about it for yourself. Dr Malhotra says: “Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, making dietary changes and taking more exercise can have a far bigger impact on heart disease risk.
“Yet, sadly, medication is often seen as a substitute for healthy living.”