In the Covid-19 pandemic period, there have been increased reports of patients missing on lifesaving treatments for their illnesses such as dialysis sessions and cancer treatments. There have been less emergency department hospital visits for life-threatening conditions such as asthmatic attacks and heart attacks, with resultant bad outcomes at home.
Since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, people have opted for self-medication due to fear of coming to hospitals where the risk of contracting Covid-19 is perceived to be high, stigma associated with Covid-19 disease, curfews and partial lockdowns and the requirements for physical distancing.
Abuse of over-the-counter and prescription medicines
Self-medication is defined as the selection and use of medicines by individuals (or a member of the individual's family) to treat self-recognised or self-diagnosed conditions or symptoms.
The most commonly abused medicines through self-medication are over-the-counter medicines (OTC medicines). These are medicines that can be bought in pharmacies without a prescription. They include but not limited to painkillers, antacids, vitamins and cough remedies.
Prescription medicines on the other hand, are drugs that require a prescription before you can acquire them as they are considered to be potentially harmful if not used under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.
Examples of prescription only medicines include antimicrobials, anti-hypertensives, anti-diabetics, antidepressants, narcotics analgesics among others. Unfortunately, with the Covid-19 pandemic, prescription only drugs are now increasingly being self-prescribed.
Dangers of self-medication
While self-medication could have few advantages especially when dealing with well-informed patients in the management of their chronic conditions and minor ailments, it is far from being a completely safe practice.
Patients with chronic diseases have used inappropriate pain relieving medications that worsen their diseases. For instance, the use of common painkillers and anti-inflammatories such as diclofenac in people with hypertension, can tip them into renal failure.
Potential risks of self-medication practices include:
· Delays in seeking medical advice when needed,
· Masking of a severe disease,
· Incorrect self-diagnosis,
· Incorrect choice of therapy,
· Incorrect manner of administration,
· Incorrect dosage,
· Rare but severe adverse reactions that can lead to permanent disability or even death,
· Dangerous drug interactions,
· Polypharmacy and
· Risk of dependence and abuse.
Healthcare professionals have been trained to accurately diagnose an ailment and administer the appropriate medication to treat a particular condition. If you or your loved one is experiencing a certain illness, it is therefore advisable that you visit your healthcare professional. Do not self-medicate. Let the healthcare professional; determine the cause of your ailment and prescribe the right medicines and once the technologist has filled the prescription, it's up to you to take the medicine as instructed.
So how do we reduce self-medication during the pandemic?
· Have a discussion with your health care provider on how you can seek care safely. Hospitals have instituted measures to avoid transmission of Covid-19, with the required physical distancing measures, appropriate use of PPE including facemasks, use of standard infection control precautions and isolation of patients who are suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19.
· Make use of teleconsultation option offered by hospitals. At Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi for example, tele-consultation has been complemented with mobile laboratory and home delivery of medicines and therefore you can receive the care you need and correct medication from the comfort of your home.
· Never share your prescription medications with others or use someone else’s prescription medications.
· Use all medicines as directed by a health professional.
· Always store your medications securely to prevent others from using them and properly dispose off that are no longer in use.
· Be a good example to those around you by modeling these safe-medication taking practices and discuss the dangers of misusing prescription drugs with your family, friends, colleagues, students or patients.
· Avoid using over the counter (OTC) especially for those with chronic cardiovascular disease.
Dr Shabani is an Assistant Professor, Family Medicine and the Chair of the Family Medicine Department at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi