Brits play ‘Russian roulette’ with medicines

November 07, 2013

Britons are gambling with their own, and other people’s, lives as they flout serious safety warnings on medication, according to new research* from The Co-operative Pharmacy. 

A study has revealed a widespread disregard for health warnings for GP prescribed drugs and over-the-counter medicines. Worryingly, over one in four Britons ignored drowsiness warnings on medication (28 per cent). A separate survey of pharmacists** found that only half of customers wanted to discuss possible side effects and instances were highlighted of, potentially dangerous, incorrect medicines usage among patients.

The Co-operative Pharmacy is reminding people who are beginning a course of medication, particularly those changing or starting on new medication, that pharmacists offer advice on all aspects of medicines management.

Frighteningly, almost one in five (19 per cent) potentially put themselves and others in danger by admitting that they had driven or operated machinery after taking medicines which specifically advised against such action in a patient information leaflet.

One in five people played "Russian roulette" with their health by taking prescription medication that was meant for someone else (20 per cent) and a shocking one in six (18 per cent) has doubled the dosage of their medicine because they didn’t think it was working as intended.  More than one in five (22 per cent) admitted that they ignored dosage instructions highlighted on the pack of over-the-counter medicines.

Men were the worst culprits for ignoring health advice with almost a third of males (31 per cent) revealing that they didn't read the patient information leaflet when taking prescription medicines.  This jumped to two in five (42 per cent) for over-the-counter medicines.

And those aged 18-24 were the worst offenders when it came to not reading patient information on medicines bought across the counter (48 per cent). 

Common instances of patients not reading the full information on their medicine leaflets were illustrated by individuals eating suppositories and pessaries, or using suppositories without removing the wrapper.  A number of pharmacists reported that people often empty the contents of their medicine capsules out and mix them with jam to take them. 

Other common mistakes included taking medicines orally that are meant to be inhaled and human medicines being given to pets.***

Inhalers also caused problems for people, with one patient trying to squirt the contents of their inhaler up their nose.  Other topics patients were keen to discuss with pharmacists included packaging, brand names and exactly why they had been prescribed the medication.

Janice Perkins, Superintendent Pharmacist, at The Co-operative Pharmacy, said:

“We have identified that a significant number of people are putting themselves and others in serious danger by ignoring safety warnings. 

“People should always read the patient information leaflet that comes with their medicine – whether it’s prescribed or not – as a number of medicines bought over the counter can contain potent ingredients that interact with other medication.  Failure to do so is like playing Russian roulette with your health.

“Pharmacists can help individuals understand and get the most out of their medicines and provide guidance on when and how they should be taken, in addition to providing advice on medicine interactions and side effects, as well as how these can be reduced.”

Jan MacDonald, Head of Patient Information Quality from the Medicines Healthcare Products and Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said:

“The patient information leaflet which comes with a medicine sets out key messages which ensure safe and effective medicine taking. This is a living document which changes as new information is known about a medicine and pharmacists are ideally placed to discuss this with patients so as to optimise their medicines management for best clinical effect. 

“The MHRA is committed to encouraging the development of new innovative ways of communicating information to patients as it is vital that patients understand the medicines they are taking and we understand that the patient information leaflet cannot address individual patient experiences.  We know that patients value the information they receive from their pharmacist and if people think they have suffered an adverse reaction to their medication they can report it to us via their healthcare professional or directly through our Yellow Card Scheme.”

Additional Information:


* OnePoll survey 2,000 respondents from across UK regions aged 18 and above.

**Survey of Co-operative Pharmacists across the UK.  The results illustrate queries raised but medicines were not necessarily supplied in the first instance by The Co-operative Pharmacy. 

***Animals should not be given human medicines as their metabolism and body weight is different to humans, unless advised by a vet.