The New York City medical examiner’s finding that an accidental overdose was the cause of actor Heath Ledger’s death brings to light the importance of medication safety. Daniel A. Hussar, PhD, Remington professor of pharmacy at USP’s Philadelphia College of Pharmacy hopes the tragedy will raise awareness of the risks involved with using prescription and over-the-counter medications and the importance of an open patient-pharmacist relationship.
"Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine," medical examiner's spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said in a statement. The medical examiner’s office further clarified by saying Ledger took “prescribed therapeutic doses … or less” of each medication he ingested.
As Dr. Hussar explained, people often focus on the ultimate effect of a medication, whether it be for pain relief or to subdue anxiety, without taking into account the secondary or side effects.
“Heath and others could easily assume that because these medications have different uses that their effects are not going to overlap or add up,” he said. “But as those of us who are familiar with these medications recognize, every one of them has the ability to have a sedative effect.”
According to Dr. Hussar, prescription and over-the-counter medications may have different uses, but they often contain the same active ingredients. For example, the active ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen, is present in many medications used to treat a variety of symptoms.
“Before taking any medication, individuals should have an understanding of what the active ingredients are, and what the potential risks are as well as the benefits of the drug,” suggested Dr. Hussar. “The pharmacist is so readily accessible for most individuals and is an expert on the acts of these drugs. I encourage individuals to make use of the pharmacists as a readily available resource for what medications should and shouldn’t be taken together.”
Whether you’re beginning a new prescription or considering an over-the-counter medicine, Dr. Hussar recommends you consider the following measures for your safety:
- Always use the same pharmacy.
- Avoid buying medications by mail and over the internet.
- Check the ingredients and know their effects.
- Understand the proper dosage.
- Let one doctor oversee all your prescriptions.
- Tell your doctor and pharmacist about over-the-counter medications.
- Ask your pharmacist if anything is unclear.