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It’s a standard part of most doctor visits: “Tell me about the medications you’re taking.” Some people quickly list a few prescriptions or pull out a list. But patients often don’t think to tell us about ointments or creams they’ve purchased to self-treat skin conditions.
Two of my colleagues and I recently wrote about an experience we had with a patient who came into one of the MedStar outpatient dermatology clinics for help with atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema. This patient had purchased a topical cream that they recognized from back home at a local African store. We found that this medication contained a prescription-strength steroid, and that the cream also was available online with no prescription required.
Taking or using any topical medication without knowing exactly what’s in it and how it could interact with other drugs you’re on is extremely dangerous. It’s critical to check with your doctor before purchasing topical medications to avoid potential harmful effects from products.
The dangers of using medications made outside the U.S.
It’s easy to think that a medication available without a prescription is safe. But every drug carries the risk of side effects, including topical medications.
Every #medication, even if it’s available #OTC or online, carries the risk of potentially harmful #sideeffects. via @MedStarWHC
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates medications sold in the U.S., but drugs manufactured in other countries and sold here or online may not carry the same level of regulation and oversight.
Topical products, such as creams or lotions, may not affect just the area being treated. Depending on the strength of the medication, the size of the affected area and how thick your skin is, these medications can cause local side effects and potentially affect the whole body, just like medications taken as pills or in other forms.
How to lower your risk
The most important advice I give my patients and that I can share with everyone is to tell your doctor about all skin products, lotions and beauty products you use, in addition to your prescription and over-the-counter medications. Write a list of all your medications and bring it with you every time you go to the doctor, or use a smartphone app to keep track of what you take. This is vital information your doctor needs.
On the flip side, it’s just as important for all doctors to ask their patients about all the medications they take, including over the counter products. If your doctor doesn’t ask, initiate the conversation. This is especially important for patients who take many medications, as we want to avoid potentially harmful interactions.
Although it’s no substitute for talking to a doctor or pharmacist, basic information about medications is available online. A credible resource patients can use is the Drug & Supplements information from MedLinePlus, which is operated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This database provides information about how to use medications, special precautions, possible side effects and more.
If you come across a drug that’s potentially unsafe, you or your doctor can report it to the FDA through the MedWatch reporting form. My colleagues and I did this with the cream my patient bought for eczema, along with reporting it to Amazon. Within a couple of days, the product was no longer available to buy on Amazon.
Your doctor is there to protect you, but you have to have open and honest conversations about the medications you use, including topical creams, so you can work together and avoid harmful side effects.
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