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Self-medication: What are the dangers?

Parents often diagnose their children’s illnesses and buy the medication that they feel will address the problem. A minor health issue which the doctor’s advice can resolve easily becomes a major problem over time…..

BabyLove Network interviewed Dr. Mary Kisingu and Dr. Bindi Tank of The Nairobi Hospital

What is self-medication?

Self-medication refers to the use of medications by individuals to treat self-recognised or self-diagnosed conditions or symptoms. It involves the use of OTC (over-the-counter) medicines as well as prescription medication of other family members, or the intermittent or continued use of a medication prescribed by a physician for chronic or recurring diseases or symptoms.

What influences parents to self-medicate?

Parents may have influence to self-medicate because: they feel it may be easier for them; they imagine it will be more cost or time effective; they may not feel their medical situation merits making an appointment with a healthcare professional; or they may have few or no other options open or available to them at the time.

Is self-medication a common practice for both adults and children?

Self-medication is common through all ages, but it is more significant in children. Parents often diagnose their children’s illnesses and buy the medication that they feel will address the problem.

Are there any myths surrounding self- medication?
Myth 1 Self-medication with OTC medicines is absolutely safe.

This is not true. The usage of any medicine, even OTC medication should follow the doctor’s recommendations.Therefore, Using medication for extended periods or not as per instructions can be quite harmful.

Myth 2 Self-medication for minor ailments is absolutely safe

This is also not true. Taking medication for recurring minor symptoms may mask an underlying illness. Consequently, a minor health issue which the doctor’s advice can resolve easily becomes a major problem over time. Many patients wish they wouldn’t have self-medicated and gone to see the doctor earlier.

What are the common ailments for which parents self-medicate?

The common conditions for which parents usually self-medicate include Pain, Fever, Coughs and Colds, Indigestion as well as taking Vitamin and Mineral supplementation.

What are the dangers of self-medication?

An ordinary individual has no specialized knowledge of the principles of pharmacology and therapy, therefore potential risks of self-medication practices are quite a number including:

  • Incorrect self-diagnosis
  • Delays in seeking medical advice when needed
  • Infrequent but severe adverse reactions
  • Dangerous drug interactions
  • Incorrect manner of administration
  • wrong dosage
  • Incorrect choice of therapy
  • Masking of a severe disease
  • Risk of dependence and abuse
  • Failure to recognize that the same active substance is already being taken under a different name (products with different trademarks may have the same active ingredient)
  • Failure to report current self-medication to the prescribing physician (risk of double medication or harmful interaction)
  • Risk at work or in sports that may have the medication have adverse effects
  • Inappropriate self-medication can result in wastage of healthcare resources and increased antibiotic resistance
Are there are any instances of successful self-medication?

Self-medication when practiced responsibly can provide relief from minor manageable ailments. This implies medicine used appropriately, carefully, and safely, and should the symptoms not improve in reasonable time then the advice of a healthcare professional is sought. Individuals on medicines for a long time e.g. chronic conditions such as Diabetes or Asthma may be able to practice well self medications, whereby a physician or pharmacist will have guided on safe medicine use. However, the key word to note is that guidance must be given.

What is the difference between over-the-counter medications and self-medication?

Self-medication is the treatment of common health problems with medicines especially designed and labelled for use without medical supervision and approved as safe and effective for such use. ‘Non-prescription’ or ‘over the counter’ (OTC) refer to medicines for self medication and are available without a doctor’s prescription through pharmacies. In some countries OTC products are also available in supermarkets and other outlets. However, prescription products are medicines that require a doctor’s prescription.

Self-Care with OTC medicines is sometimes referred to as ‘responsible’ self-medication to distinguish this from the practice of purchasing and using a prescription medicine without a doctors’ prescription. This is irresponsible (and potentially even dangerous) ‘self-prescription’, and has no place in self-care or (responsible) self-medication.

What should be done with left over medication from previous prescriptions?

For advice and safe disposal of Left over medicines one should visit the nearest pharmacy. The disposal of medicines should never be along with regular household garbage. A pharmacist will provide advice on how to manage any leftover medicines, if they may be used again, for what period of time you may keep the medication and how to use it.

Can medicines be shared across siblings with the same symptoms?

Siblings with similar symptoms may not always necessarily be suffering from the same conditions, and therefore it is not advisable to share medicines across siblings. Siblings of different ages and weights would also require individualised doses and therefore it is best to consult your paediatrician or physician.

Dr. Mary Kising’u and Dr. Bindi Tank practise at The Nairobi Hospital, providing pharmaceutical care to hundreds of patients daily both at the outpatient and in-patient units. Dr. Kisingu is the Chief Pharmacist and Dr. Tank Heads the outpatient unit.
For more information on self-medication please contact them at The Nairobi Hospital’s Pharmacy Department on telephone no. +254 20 2845000 / +254 7030 82000 hosp@nbihosp.org


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