Medicines Aren’t for Mixing

Lesson Objective:

Students will learn that, while prescription and over the counter (OTC) medicines are tested to be sure that they are safe, they are not meant to be mixed with other medicines or substances like alcohol. If they are, there could be dangerous or even deadly side effects.  

Students should learn to:

  1. Combining drugs, even if they are prescribed by a doctor, can change the way a drug’s active ingredient works.
  2. There can be unexpected and dangerous results when people mix medicines or when people mix substances with alcohol or illegal drugs.
  3. In unsafe situations involving prescription or OTC medicines, students can contact the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for free, confidential help.

Key Terms:

  • Active ingredient
  • Stimulant
  • Prescription

Teacher preparation:

For this lesson, teachers will need several empty medicine bottles or packages with labels for students to look at. Note: Any medicine examples must be empty for student safety. Teachers can also choose to bring in labels only. Finally, teachers will need access to computers or a printer.

Lesson Instructions:

A. Introduction and Active Ingredients – 5 minutes

An active ingredient is the part of a medication that is responsible for the medication’s effects. The active ingredient provides the wanted benefit of the medicine but can also provide unwanted effects such as drowsiness, nausea, or vomiting. When someone prescribes a medication, the beneficial effects of the medication should outweigh the adverse effects, which are also called side effects. Medications also have inactive ingredients such as colors, binders, or preservatives. 

Next, explain why it is important to check the ingredients in any over the counter (OTC) medication before taking it:

  • Many OTC medications contain the same active ingredients.
  • Mixing these medications together may cause you to ingest too large of a dose of the medicine, which may be harmful to your body.
  • Mixing medications can also amplify or increase their effects, which may cause dangerous side effects.

B. Reading Activity and Discussion – 15 minutes

Print and hand out the following resource for students to read, either on their own or in pairs: http://headsup.scholastic.com/sites/default/files/NIDA17_INS3_StuMag_spread.pdf 

Discuss the handout, asking the following questions: 

  1. What can happen if medicine like Ritalin and a cold medicine are taken at the same time? 
  2. Can someone find another example of two medicines that should not be taken together? 
  3. Why might someone who mixes alcohol with another medication end up in the emergency room?

C. Medicine Label Activity – 15 minutes

Next, hand out the empty medicine bottles or labels and have students take out a sheet of paper. You may choose to have students work on their own or in pairs or small groups. Have students examine the label and answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the active ingredient in this medication? 
  2. What is the maximum dose of the medication that someone your age can take in 24 hours? How many milligrams of the active ingredient(s) are in this dose? 
  3. What are some activities that should be avoided while taking this medicine? Explain why. 
  4. What substances should not be taken with this medication? 
  5. If a friend was going to take this medication, mix it with other medications, or take it while drinking alcohol, what would you say to keep them safe? 

When students are finished, discuss answers, emphasizing why it’s so important to read the labels of any medicines they take. 

D. Optional Lesson: Further Research – 15 minutes

After this lesson, direct students to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog. This site contains several articles on current drug topics. Allow students to choose an article that interests them, and write a summary of what they learn. 

E. Final Writing Assignment and Reflection – 10+ minutes

  1. Imagine that a friend invites you to a party. When you arrive, your friend has a handful of different, unmarked pills and bottles of alcohol. Knowing what you’ve learned today, what goes through your mind?
  2. Imagine that another friend of yours has already taken some of these drugs and is drinking alcohol. Based on what you’ve read, what might happen next? 
  3. If you wanted to convince your friends to stop or to get help, what would you say and what evidence would you show to convince them that it’s serious?