Most people have taken prescription medications at one time or another. Some people take them on an ongoing basis to treat a chronic condition, while others take them for shorter periods of time to treat medical problems that arise. If you are taking 1 or more prescription medication, it is important that you take steps to make sure you are taking them safely and properly.
Learning About Your Medications
When you receive a prescription for a medication, ask your doctor or pharmacist the following questions:
- Why am I taking the medication?
- How long will it take to start working?
- How long will I have to take it?
- Can I substitute a generic form?
- How should I store the medication?
- What time of day should I take it?
- Should I take the medication with food?
- Should I avoid any foods, beverages, other medications, herbs, or dietary supplements while I am taking the medication?
- Are there certain activities I should avoid while taking the medication, such as driving?
- What side effects are associated with the medication? Should I call you if I experience them?
- What should I do if I forget to take a dose?
Be sure to discuss any concerns you have about taking the medication with your doctor. If you are diagnosed with a new medical condition or are pregnant or breastfeeding, for example, ask your doctor if you can continue taking your medication. Do not stop taking your medication unless the doctor has told you to.
Your doctor or pharmacist should be able to answer most of your questions and provide you with written information about your medication. The drug label and supplemental written information will detail what the drug is used for, how it should be taken, and how to reduce drug interactions and unwanted side effects. If you still have trouble with a label or keeping a schedule, have a family member or friend help you sort it out.
Storing Your Medications Safely
Different medications should be stored in different ways. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how you should store the medication and whether it should be refrigerated. Generally, medications should be stored in their original containers and never in the same container as another type of medication. It is best to store mediations in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Warm, humid environments, such as bathrooms, are not ideal.
Regularly check the expiration dates of the medications in your cabinet and promptly dispose of any expired medications. If there is no expiration date listed, you should consider the medication expired 6 months after it was purchased.
Avoiding Drug Interactions
You are at highest risk for drug interactions if you are taking more than 1 medication, but you can experience an interaction even if you are taking just 1. Drug interactions can make medications more or less effective, cause unwanted side effects, or harm your health.
There are 4 types of drug interactions:
- Drug-drug interactions—2 or more drugs react with each other; these may include prescription or over-the-counter medications
- Drug-food/beverage interactions—a drug reacts with a food or beverage
- Drug-herb interaction—a drug reacts with an herb or other dietary supplement
- Drug-condition interactions—a medical condition causes a drug to be dangerous
One of the best ways to avoid drug interactions is to keep a current list of all of the over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, herbs, dietary supplements, vitamins, and minerals you are taking, and share the list with your doctor and pharmacist. Try to use one pharmacy, so the pharmacist has a record of all your prescriptions, and if you see more than one doctor, keep all of your doctors up-to-date on the medications you are taking.
Know the best times to take your medications. There are several ways you can set up reminders, from a calendar to a smartphone app.
Traveling With Medications
If you are taking a prescription medication and are traveling away from home, do the following:
- Find out if your medication can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight. If it can, avoid excessive sun exposure and use sunscreen with the sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
- Pack your medications in your carry-on luggage during air, train, or bus travel. This way you will have access to them during travel, as well as at your destination, even if your luggage is lost or stolen.
- If you take medications that require a syringe, take copies of your prescriptions with you to ensure that you can pass through airport security.
- If you are traveling out of your time zone, ask your pharmacist for tips on how to adjust your medication routine.
- Keep your medications stored in cool, dry climates. Avoid storing them in checked baggage or glove compartments.
- Take extra medication with you on your trip in case you experience an unexpected delay. Do not count on being able to simply fill the prescription at your destination, particularly if you’re traveling overseas.
Special Considerations for Children
Children are at increased risk of accidental poisonings because of an overdose or misuse of medications. Taking certain precautions can help parents and caregivers avoid accidental poisonings in children.
First, avoid taking medications in front of children, since they are prone to imitating the actions of adults. Do not attempt to coerce children into taking medications by calling it candy. Keep all medications in child-resistant containers stored out of site and reach of children, preferably in a locked cabinet.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
US Food and Drug Information
Buying prescription medicine online: a consumer safety guide. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm080588.htm. Updated June 12, 2015. Accessed June 23, 2016.
Drug interactions: what you should know. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm. Updated September 25, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2016.
Taking medicines. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/takingmedicines/drugsinthebody/01.html. Accessed June 23, 2016.
Buying & using medicine safely. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/default.htm. Updated August 28, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2016.
Your medicine: Be smart. Be safe. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/safemeds/yourmeds.htm. Accessed June 23, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 7/18/2014