Taking medications in the middle of the night can be risky

You may have heard that veteran NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw was hospitalized recently after he reported feeling lightheaded after making an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

He’s fine. Brokaw tweeted, “All is well. Early a.m. I mistakenly took a half dose of Ambien and made less sense than usual.”

And that’s what you’ve got to be careful not to do.

Any time you get up in the wee hours of the morning to treat a problem, whether it be a headache, fever, sleeplessness, a stomach ache, nausea — whatever — you’ve got to adhere to a hard and fast rule. Turn on enough light to be sure you know what you’re taking and make sure you’re awake enough to be ingesting the right medication and the right dose.

It’s hard to tell just what Brokaw took and why, although it sounds like he may have grabbed a long-acting version of the sleep aid when perhaps the short-acting one would have served him better. He may have been having a wakeful night and, knowing that he had to get up early in the morning for a T.V. appearance, felt a little desperate to get some shut-eye.

Taking medication in the middle of the night has several risks.

It’s dark, and most people don’t switch on the lights because they don’t want to wake up “too much” or awaken the rest of the family.

Even if you’re sleepless, you’re usually very tired and probably not alert.

You also may be unaware of the time. It’s easy to look at a clock and think it says “12:00″ when it’s really “2:00.”  That means that you could take a drug before it’s time for another dose. Or, with sleeplessness, you might go for the long-acting version of a medication when the short-acting one would be preferred.

It’s also hard to read the tiny print on prescription labels in low light and without contacts or glasses. And, in the morning, you may forget that you took any medication at all during the night.

If you’re taking a liquid, such as cough medicine, you might be tempted to drink out of the cap or the bottle if you don’t have a spoon nearby.

The dangers are even greater when you’re traveling, which Brokaw was doing. You may put a few of your prescription and over-the-counter pills together in a small, easy-to-stow pill container. You’re in unfamiliar conditions in a hotel room. You may have trouble finding the light switch.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make some rules for yourself and your family when it comes to taking medications at night. Lights on. Read the label carefully. Check the time. Leave the pill container out so you remember in the morning that you took something.
  • If you regularly need a medication in the middle of the night, leave it out on the counter to reduce the chance that you’ll grab something else instead.
  • When you travel, make sure you carefully label each medication you bring so you don’t accidentally take the wrong drug.
  • If you take sleeping pills, know which are slow-acting and which are long-acting and label them clearly. Be certain you know the time cut-off after which you should be happy just counting sheep.
  • Keep a liquid measurement tool or spoon with any liquid drugs, like cough syrup, so you can easily get the proper dosage and won’t be tempted to estimate or drink out of the cap.  If you’re traveling, tape a plastic spoon to the medication container.

Just knowing that taking any drugs at night — prescription or over-the-counter — can be fraught with risk will help. You’ll be more careful.  It could have saved Brokaw from a frightening and unnecessary trip to the hospital.

Barbara Bronson Gray is a nurse who blogs at BodBoss.

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  • Maura69

    Recently I had a hip rerplacement and had to have home health for about 10 days. The nurses continuously told me to put my pain meds on my bed side table so they would be easier for me to reach. I adamantly refused and told them that if I needed pain medication at night I would have to be awake enough to get up and go into the kitchen find my drugs and then take them. It is way too easy to forget when, how many and what the proper time is when you are in pain and half asleep. I do not believe in having medication close at hand. You need to be aware and excess moving or looking for something actually precludes errors. Also I charted each and every dose I tool, for my protection and for the doctor if he was interested. A person is never too cautious!

    • http://twitter.com/bbgrayrn bbgrayrn

      You are so right. Couldn’t have said it better. Thank you for the comment. You might consider giving your feedback to the home health nurses, or even share this column with them. Hope it helps others, too!

  • Karin

    Great article. Better safe than sorry.

    • http://twitter.com/bbgrayrn bbgrayrn

      Thank you!

  • Molly_Rn

    I always wondered why Tom Brokaw always
    acted so self-important like a pompous ass. I thought he was just a douche bag,
    but maybe it was the Ambien

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