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The People’s Pharmacy: Pharmacy errors can be fatal

Q: Ten years ago, I lived in a different city. I went to the pharmacy to pick up my prescription and did the “grab and go.”

When I got home, I started to pour the rest of the existing medication into the new bottle. (That was my habit at the time.) I realized that the new pills didn’t look right, so I started checking. The medication in the bottle was for someone else, although the paperwork attached to the bag had my name on it.

I immediately went back to the pharmacy and told them they had put someone else’s medication in my bag. Several people were waiting for their prescriptions to be filled, and the pharmacy people tried to get rid of me, insisting that what I was saying could not have happened.

I was persistent, so finally the pharmacist checked my bag, just to shut me up. Much to her horror, she discovered that not only was such a mistake possible, but that it had happened. To her relief, she found that the other person’s bag hadn’t been picked up yet, and my medication was in it. All she had to do was swap the bottles into the correct bags.

This could happen with any pharmacy anywhere. Since then, I have been extra careful about checking my prescriptions.

A: We would all like to imagine that pharmacies are error-free zones. In truth, however, mistakes are shockingly common. One study revealed a dispensing error rate “of more than one in five prescriptions” (Journal of the American Pharmacists Association, March-April 2009).

Last year, more than 4 billion prescriptions were filled in the United States. A 20 percent error rate would represent 800 million mistakes. Although most are relatively minor, some have led to disability and even death.

You can learn more about how to protect yourself from pharmacy errors and dangerous drug interactions in our book “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them” (PeoplesPharmacy.com). We have a chapter on “Top 10 Screwups Pharmacists Make.”

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Q: You wrote about how to avoid colds. I am in excellent health, get an adequate amount of sleep, exercise every other day and wind up getting just one minor cold per year. I believe this is due to taking vitamin C and zinc daily, as well as my habitual exercise. When I feel a cold coming on, I take a couple of zinc lozenges that day, and the cold never materializes!

A: Zinc is essential for the immune system to function optimally. Older people, vegetarians and those taking diuretics and ACE-inhibitor blood-pressure pills such as lisinopril may be low in this crucial mineral.

A recent study of older people with low zinc levels found that after three months of supplementation (30 mg/day), they had more T cells, and the cells were more active in responding to a simulated infection (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition online, Jan. 27, 2016).

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Q: I noticed that ads for prescription medication include a generic name of the medication that somebody is trying to peddle. Those generic “words” look like someone poured a bunch of letters out on the table. They are more like scrambled letters and do not make sense as regular words. What’s the deal?

A: The FDA requires an official or generic name for every drug. Sadly, these often are difficult to spell and pronounce. New cancer drugs like ibritumomab tiuxetan and pembrolizumab are tongue twisters, but so are old epilepsy meds such as levetiracetam. We agree with you that such hard-to-pronounce names are problematic for both patients and health professionals.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website: PeoplesPharmacy.com.