Five tips for the safe use of drugs

All drugs are poison. No drug, be it natural or herbal, is completely safe – if it has effects, it also has side effects. The rigid regulatory framework of the pharmaceutical world and the strict requirements protect public health and guarantee the high quality, safety and efficiency of drugs. Below you will find some simple principles to follow to ensure the reasonable use of drugs.

How to achieve drug safety

Tip 1. Use medication for the correct purpose, in the correct manner and in the correct dosage

Drugs are helpful only if you use them in the right way. The doctor or pharmacist can tell you what the right way is. They study at the university for many years to become experts in this field. They will help you find the best therapy and/or medication for a medical condition, taking into account the specific patient, the secondary diseases, and other medications used. One should pay particular attention to children whose bodies function differently from adults’ and for whom there are special drugs, the dosage of which depends on the child’s age and weight.

No drug is universal to function equally well for everyone and for every disease. This is why smart people do not self-medicate or share drugs (especially prescription drugs) with friends or family. Taking a prescription drug that has not been prescribed specifically to you may pose a serious risk to your health. And although you do not need a prescription to buy over-the-counter drugs, it is not wise to administer these without consulting the pharmacist either. Arbitrary use of drugs and making self-wise treatment decisions involve a great health risk.

Dr Google, despite being only a few clicks away, will not replace a doctor or a pharmacist. A web search is not reasonable because in the patchwork of information it is easy to stumble upon misinformation. And if you believe it, the consequences to your health may be irreversible. It is like a lottery with a random chance of winning. However, you cannot afford to gamble with your health.

Tip 2. Buy drugs only at the pharmacy

Pharmacies sell drugs with proven safety, quality and efficiency. This is ensured by the strict control and regulations of the pharmaceutical sector. When you buy drugs at the pharmacy, it is not just a transaction of purchase and sale, but it always involves counselling as a part of high-quality pharmacy service. As it requires open communication with the pharmacist, you should take enough time to go to the pharmacy, just as you do when seeing a doctor. A pharmacy is not a place to rush through.

Still, some countries (for example, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway) have decided to allow selling over-the-counter drugs also in grocery shops. It should be repeated once more that a drug can be a poison if used incorrectly. Outside the pharmacy (for example, in a grocery shop, filling station, marketplace), the patient cannot receive the quality pharmacy service or counselling, because the expert in the field – the pharmacist – is missing. As drugs can be used incorrectly because of that, it can have serious consequences.

Sadly, drugs get also traded illegally, outside the legitimate supply chain, mostly online. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of drugs purchased over the internet are counterfeit. Often, counterfeits have been made very skilfully and are almost impossible to identify by visual inspection. The counterfeiters, however, are not as skilful in copying the contents of the drug. Such a drug is dangerous, as it lacks any kind of quality control to start with. Its effect can turn out to be life-threatening. When buying drugs online, do it only from an authorised online pharmacy. The Estonian Agency of Medicines has currently issued the activity licence to three online pharmacies.

Tip 3. Know your drugs

To make sure that using drugs is as safe as possible, know its properties. Both the doctor and the pharmacist provide that information. The patient should actively ask questions about drugs, as well. In addition to counselling, the package leaflet that all drugs come with provides reliable and independent pharmaceutical information. The package leaflet describes the effect of the drug, potential adverse effects and interactions, dosage guidelines and recommendations, storage conditions, etc. So make sure to read the package leaflet of the drug you are taking and ask the doctor or pharmacist for explanations if any questions arise.

Some drugs improve athletic performance. If you are an athlete, always check whether you are allowed to take a particular drug or not.

Tip 4. Pay attention to the safe storage of drugs

Correct storage of drugs ensures their quality, efficiency and safety. You can find storage guidelines in the package leaflet. The pharmacist can draw attention to the storage conditions, but the responsibility for the correct storage of medical supplies at home lies with the customer. If not stored correctly, the active substance may change, the drug may cease to have an effect or even turn dangerous to health.

The best place for storing medical supplies at home is in a closable cabinet located in a dry room at room temperature, at a height suitable to the adult so that children and pets could not access the drugs. Children should not be allowed to play with drugs or use them on their own. As the best defence is caution and awareness of possible risks, it is important to teach children about drugs and the related hazards from an early age. An adult must always help the child to administer a drug.

Don’t use the drug once the expiry date marked on the package has passed. If drugs are left over due to their expiry, the end of treatment, decease of a family member or other reasons, take them back to the pharmacy or a waste station where they are collected for free. Unusable drugs pose a hazard to both the health and the environment, affecting it even in very small amounts.

Tip 5. Do not believe in miracle cures

We can often come across articles and ads about “miracle cures”. How to use common sense to test the reliability of such information? First, it pays off to know the background of the author (and also that of the source, e.g. the website or the publisher of the magazine) – usually a quick web search gives the answer.

Remain critical regarding the information, as many authors have created a self-praising advertising website with no information about their education whatsoever. Secondly, pay attention to the scientific research usually referred to in such articles: has the research really been conducted or is it a fabrication, do the claimed institution and researchers really exist and whether they do research or something completely different?

Fake scientific publications often use certain tricks to build the reader’s trust. For instance, they start by stating well-known health recommendations, such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Then they mention “recent studies” that may be far from being evidence-based and have nothing to do with research. They sedate the reader by using complicated terms and fancy titles of the authors of the study. The product is described as a magic cure that helps with all kinds of problems without having a single side effect.

In such situations, trust your common sense and logic: if something is said to be great for everything, it is, in fact, good for nothing, and if something sounds too good to be true, it rarely is. If there really was such a magic cure, we would not even need real drugs, they are still very much around.





The advice given above is based on the book Ravimitest maakeeles (2020) by Karin Kogermann, Ain Raal, Janne Sepp, Kersti Teder and Daisy Volmer.

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