Self-medication: The underrated vice

Evelyn Kugonza, 47, a resident of Nsambya started feeling the signs of a cold one Saturday evening. The symptoms cause her a lot of discomfort and difficulty breathing. To relieve the discomfort, she rushes to a nearby pharmacy to get some medication. Without a proper checkup or diagnosis, she is given tablets by the pharmacist to be taken thrice a day. On taking the tablets, Evelyn took a rest only to wake up to a burning sensation all over her body that later turned into a rash. This immediately prompted her to go to a hospital to receive a proper diagnosis and ended up spending more than she intended with adverse effects to boot.

This is the fate of many Ugandans today who choose self- medication over a proper diagnosis in a hospital because it is cheaper and also saves time spent queuing up in hospitals to see a doctor.

Self-medication may be defined as the process of administering medication, especially without the advice of a physician. The medicines administered may be acquired from pharmacies, drug stores, friends and relatives or even street vendors. Contrary to popular belief, self-medication does not only include over the counter medicines but also comes in other forms. These include:

Self-medicating with food

This is also sometimes referred to as ‘emotional eating’ where one uses food as a way to suppress negative emotions as well as depression. Julie Kobusingye, a professional nutritionist based in Kampala says some people find relief in eating food to relieve stress.

She however advises that it should be avoided as it may lead to unnecessary weight gain that may be harmful to one’s health leading to complications such as obesity. This form of self-medication mostly occurs in emotional eaters.

Self-medicating with alcohol

Alcohol may be in the form of beer, wine, spirits or any other form of liquor. Most consumers look to alcohol as a temporary relief of stress, depression and anxiety. It may also make one more jovial and social, which may explain the fact that most social gatherings have alcohol as a form of refreshment.  In low doses, alcohol may temporarily relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

However, when used regularly, it can lead to alcoholism. Kobusingye further says that self-medicating with alcohol may come with adverse effects such as deterioration of the body function such as the liver and kidneys leading to death.

This includes alcohol abuse and dependence whereby one drinks too much that the body eventually becomes addicted to alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, six people die every day in the United States from alcohol poisoning. Research has also found that alcoholism is a factor in 30 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths.  Alcoholism may require a lengthy recovery process and may be extremely difficult to manage.

Self-medicating with psychostimulants

 Psychostimulants are substances that have mood enhancing and stimulant properties. They are used medically especially to treat symptoms of distraction, forgetfulness and hyperactivity. These substances come in form of cocaine, amphetamines, nicotine and ecstasy, among others.  They are also sometimes used to treat depression but are used illicitly frequently.

This may be due to the feelings of euphoria these drugs can cause. However, substances such as cocaine can be addictive, cause depression, body tremors, seizures or even sudden death when there’s interaction with alcohol. Amphetamines on the other hand speed up heart function and pose a risk of a stroke.

Psychostimulants may temporarily distract users from depression. However, the after effect once the drugs have worn off are at times not worth the use at all.

Self-medicating with caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant found in a number of foods and drinks. Some of these include coffee, tea and energy drinks among others. Most people take coffee as an energy booster to stay alert for longer hours in the day. However, once the effect of the caffeine wears off, insulin levels in the body wear off causing feelings of confusion and depression. Caffeine may also increase feelings of anxiety.

Other medications

Other forms of medications frequently used in self-medication include antibiotics, antimalarials, anti-histamines, analgesics, weight gain and reducing agents, multivitamins as well as skin bleaching steroids. These kinds of medicine are commonly referred to as Over The Counter medications. They are usually acquired from pharmacies, drug stores, clinics or even street vendors.

Dr. Kwizera Alex, a general doctor at Mulago National Referral Hospital, says “many diseases have similar symptoms therefore, at times patients self-medicate because they depend on previous prescriptions for diagnosis”.

Dr. Alex warns that this may lead to adverse reactions by the body that may be worse. Therefore, it is better to always get a proper diagnosis from a qualified health worker.

Many people often opt for these kinds of medications as it is cheaper to acquire them. This is because patients are required to pay consultation fees in hospitals which may prove to be costly. Also, in some cases, a lot of time is spent waiting in line to see a health practitioner therefore some people opt to self-medicate to save time.

Self-medication may also be attributed to lack of awareness in some individuals. In such cases, individuals do not find it necessary to first seek medical advice before taking medication. This is because socially, certain medications are linked to certain common ailments such as headaches, common colds, cough and diarrhoea among others. This may prove to be unhelpful as such ‘simple’ ailments may be symptoms of more serious underlying conditions that need to be diagnosed by a qualified health worker. Also, self-medication using the wrong diagnosis may have adverse health effects or even fatalities.

Some argue however, that self-medication reduces the burden on medical services, especially on health practitioners who offer professional medical consultation services. Also, in cases of emergencies, self-medication may come in handy to save a life. However, caution needs to be taken to prevent adverse effects, which may include death.