By Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN
You may have heard that veteran NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw was hospitalized recently after he reported feeling lightheaded following a TV appearance.
Afterward, 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.
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 an award-winning writer and a nationally recognized health expert. She's a regular contributor to HealthDay.com, preparedpatientforum.com and thirdage.com. Barbara has worked in hospitals, as a nurse and as an administrator, led a major healthcare magazine, created a website for WebMD, and served as a leader of global communications for Amgen, the world's largest biotech company. She continues to write and speak about healthcare and has a communications consultancy. Follow her on Twitter: @bbgrayrn.