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Self Medication


Self prescribing or self medication is an increasingly popular method of managing ones own healthcare.  It has a role in the management of minor illnesses, but if misused can pose a significant health risk for the individual.  Potential risks apply equally to conventional and complementary medication, as there innumerable interactions that pharmaceutical medicines and natural treatments can have for a patient.  Medication is typically prescribed by a health professional after evaluation of a patient.  This is based on the individual's health record, family history, age, symptoms and the results from any tests conducted.  This is to ensure that any potential drug, health or allergic interactions are identified, and is compulsory for any prescription.  It also informs the allocation of the required dosage and frequency of a treatment.  It is therefore crucial to get accurately diagnosed by a health professional for any serious medical condition before contemplating self medication.    Before one begins to use any medication one should also be aware of:

  • correct usage - tailoring the treatment to the disease/condition for maximum effect
  • dosage - taking the correct amount at the appropriate time of day
  • special instructions - some medicines must be taken before or after meals
  • side effects - knowing what to expect from a medication includes knowledge of the side effects of a course of treatment
  • contra-indications - some medicines cannot be taken with other medication or alcohol for example

Health Risks

Unsupervised, self medication can result in a number of health risks:

  • misdiagnosis - some conditions are difficult to diagnose or have similar symptoms to other diseases/conditions, which may lead to use of the incorrect medication
  • unknown side effects - these may be mild or have more serious long term consequences
  • internal organ damage - prolonged exposure to some drugs can lead to damage to the internal organs such as the liver, kidney and heart
  • dosages - excessive dosages of medicines can lead to serious side effects, enduring harm to the body or in some cases be fatal
  • polypharmacy - too many forms of medication are used by a patient at once, leading to drug interactions, which may be particularly problematic for the elderly


The growth of the internet, and the dissemination of information it has encouraged, has played a significant role in promoting self prescribing.  This includes the burgeoning trade in medicines and treatments that online pharmacies/retailers dispense, many of which may be of unknown manufacture or origin.  Weight loss drugs, anti-depressants and sexual performance enhancers all feature prominently, and are all medicines that should be allocated with a prescription.

Medication sold online could be unsafe for a number of reasons:

  • fake or substandard products - manufactured illegally and under unhygienic conditions
  • in unsafe dosages
  • contain dangerous ingredients
  • have expired
  • be incorrectly labelled, stored or shipped

There are legitimate online pharmacy's which can supply you with genuine products, but these should be accredited for internet and/or distance dispensing.  They also require the original doctor's prescription and should not accept a faxed or emailed version.

Best practice

Before you start to use any new medicine or treatment, ask a health professional for advice - this may be your doctor, pharmacist or complementary health practitioner.  They will advise you how to use a product, having weighed the risks of any side effects against the expected benefits of the course of treatment.  This is especially relevant to pharmaceutical medications, but is also applicable to complementary medicines, which can also have serious side effects.

It is widely accepted that direct contact between patients and a health professionals is the most effective method for provision of medication, as it ensures accurate diagnosis.  If you do purchase medication and decide to self medicate for a minor illness, always read the label to obtain further information about the product before using it.

If you have a condition that requires medication see your doctor, pharmacist or naturopath as soon as possible.

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