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Top Ten Tips for IBLCE Exam Pharm/Tox Questions

Many test-takers worry about the pharm/tox questions, but with these tips you'll be fine!

Multiple test-takers have told me they had “trouble” answering the IBLCE Exam’s pharm/tox questions. I’ve heard this from both first-time candidates and from those who are re-certifying. To give some guidance for everyone, here are my top tips for handling pharmacology/toxicology questions.

1. Understand the rudiments of pharmacokinetics

True, you need to know what common drugs do to the body (pharmacodynamics). But few people understand the rudiments of pharmacokinetics. Pharmacokinetics is what the body does to the drug. 

More often than not, risk/benefit depends on a fundamental understanding of half-life, protein-binding, molecular size, milk-to-plasma ratio, and more. So at least know the definition of many terms related to pharmacokinetics, and their effect on the breastfed infant. 

2. Know your role — and its limitations

The IBLCE has never said that you can or should make the risk/benefit decision about safety of a drug for mother — or her breastfed baby. To the contrary; it’s fairly clear that determining risk/benefit is not within the IBCLC’s Scope of Practice. I might argue that even the primary care provider — who is legally authorized to prescribe — should not have the “last word” on risk/benefit. The client should have the final say on risk/benefit!

For the client to be empowered in that way, the IBCLC must understand factors that affect risk/benefit (hello, pharmacokinetics!) and, if necessary, be ready to discuss those factors with providers (using professional terms) or patients (using lay terms). The IBCLC’s role is to give information, not advice. Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. Whether you teach, counsel, or advocate, you’ll need superior communication skills.  

Giving reassurance about a drug that has already been prescribed for the mother is okay, if you know it will not affect the safety or volume of her milk. 

3. Know indications and basic side effects

For pharm/tox questions, you need to know why a drug would be prescribed or used, how it might affect the milk (e.g., discolors the milk), how it might affect the baby’s behavior (lethargy?), or the mother’s ability to feed or care for her infant. 

4. Know your social and recreational drugs

Alcohol, caffeine, and other substances are “fair game” for the IBLCE Exam. Know the basics of drugs that have adverse effects, especially substances that are abused.

5. Brush up on environmental toxins

Okay, I agree, this is a tough one. But environmental toxins, such as mercury, lead, pesticides, or perchloroethylene or other environmental toxins are fair game pharm/tox questions.

6. Learn all you can about galactagogues

Galactagogues are substances that are thought to increase milk supply. These differ from one culture to another. Teas made from certain herbs, foods, drinks (including alcohol and beer), and pharmaceutical preparations all qualify as galactagogues. They would certainly be part of the pharm/tox questions.

7. Learn all you can about milk suppressants

While one dose of over-the-counter drugs like pseudoephedrine or diphenhydramine aren’t likely to dry up milk, repeated doses could. Most mothers don’t think of mint as a milk suppressant, but in large quantities, it could be, because mint is part of the sage family. Sage is well-known for its milk-suppressant effects. 

However, a peppermint patty is not a problem. An Altoid or two is fine, but eating the whole box in one day could substantially suppress supply. 

8. Identify drugs that have a potentially lethal effect on the infant

Years ago, I probably when asked about pharm/tox questions, I would have said, “identify drugs that are contraindicated when nursing.” Nowadays, the emphasis is on weighing risk/benefit in individual cases, rather than lumping “contraindicated” drugs into one category.

That said, two categories are particularly concerning. If a mother needs cytotoxic drugs (cancer drugs) or radiopharmaceutical substances, it is likely she will be required to wean or temporarily interrupt breastfeeding. 

You should also be ware of illicit drugs, including marijuana, and the effects on breastfeeding.

9. Know trade names and generic names of medications

The IBLCE Exam uses trade names, not generic names. I suggest you think of 50 of the most commonly-used medications, and then try to match them with their generic names. 

10. Remember, it’s the smallest percentage of the IBLCE Exam

This year, I made a pie chart showing the percentages of all questions on the Detailed Content Outline. Pharm/tox questions comprise the smallest section of the exam — only 7 percent of the total test items. 

So I’m not suggesting that you blow it off. But don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on it because pharm/tox questions aren’t the majority of the exam, and don’t lose too much sleep over it.

If you use these 10 tips while you study, I think you’ll be just fine! I offer Drills in the 7 Disciplines to aid you in your studies!

How are you preparing for the pharm/tox questions? If you’ve taken the exam, what did you find helpful in preparing for the pharm/tox questions? Tell me in the comments below.

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  1. Meghan

    I can picture the pie chart that you mention above- I know I’ve seen it somewhere! Can you link to it here? Thanks so much.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oh Meghan, you and I must have similar learning styles! I love graphs. However, I have never seen an “official” pie chart of this information. I did make one myself and put it into my powerpoint presentation for a webinar or course or something. I just did the math, really. I looked at the number of IBLCE exam items in each category, and made a graph. (And I don’t precisely know how to attach it here…) So maybe it would be good if I did a short post on the percentages for all categories? I could probably whip that up. For me, at least, knowing how “fat” the category is helps me to gain some perspective, which I suspect is what you’re looking for. So lemme see what I can do, no promises! Thanks for the question.

      • Meghan

        Thanks so much for the reply. I think I must be remembering it from the webinar that you presented. I will make sure take a look at the categories for sure.

        • Marie Biancuzzo

          Meghan, stand by! I am posting a special BONUS blog post tomorrow! I don’t usually post on Saturday, but since you raised the question, and since it’s just before the exam, I thought it was worth talking about. Thanks for feeling this was worthwhile, and thanks for inspiring me to take it on in a post!

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