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Are you taking too many medications? 5 things to know

Most Americans regularly take prescription medication. Here are the steps you can take to make sure the pills you're taking are safe and effective.
/ Source: TODAY

Americans are popping a lot of pills, according to Consumer Reports: 55 percent of Americans regularly take prescription medication — four drugs on average. That's a lot, in fact, it's more than people in any other country take — and that's not a good thing.

"We over-prescribe. According to the CDC in 2014, 1.3 million visits to the emergency room (were) because of adverse effects to drugs," said NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar, and about 124,000 people died from those events.

What steps can we take to make changes for the better? Azar stopped by TODAY to share advice:

1. When you go for your annual physical, bring your medications.

Azar recommended that before your doctor's visit, take everything out of your medicine cabinet and bring it with you to find out if the medications are still good for you.

"What happens a lot is that people are taking prescription medicines and they're also taking over-the-counter medicines and supplements — not realizing those could have interactions," Azar noted. "A lot of people end up taking more than one drug for the same indication, not realizing it."

Ask your doctor if the medication is still important to take on a regular basis.

2. Talk to your pharmacist about what you're taking.

Some people take a medication for one thing and then experience a side effect, so they take something else to help with that. This is referred to as "poly pharmacy" and should be avoided. In other cases, you may be taking two separate medications for two totally different reasons, but the drugs don't interact well together.

"Those kinds of drug-drug interactions need to be reviewed, and the pharmacist is one of your best friends for that," advised Azar.

3. Adhere to expiration dates, except in emergency situations.

The expiration date is the last date the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical company can guarantee the drug is both safe and effective. If you have a need for a life-saving drug, like an EpiPen, it's best to not let it expire.

"But we've had a lot of research studies that have showed that a lot of these drugs end up being still potent after their expiration date," Azar explained. "If you're in an emergency situation, take it when you call 9-1-1."

4. Be careful when dispensing drugs to your kids.

Azar noted syringes can be more effective than plastic cups when it comes to dispensing the accurate amount. Keep a log of when you give your kids certain medications so you can share that information with other caregivers.

5. Take care when throwing away unused medication.

Azar recommended sealing it, putting it in kitty litter — anything to make it unappealing to someone. Some pharmacies have drug take-back programs that allow for safe disposal.