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Medication safety 101

When taken improperly, a medicine meant to heal can actually cause great harm.

Questions

1. How can I get the most benefits from a prescription medicine with the fewest risks?

2. Is there anything I should tell my doctor before he or she prescribes a drug?

3. Does my doctor need to know about both the prescription and over-the-counter drugs that I take?

4. Do I have a say in determining the medicine my doctor prescribes?

5. I've heard it's a good idea to use only one pharmacy when filling my prescriptions. Is this true?

6. What precautions are wise once I start taking a prescription medicine?

7. Why is it so important to take any medication—prescription or over-the-counter—as directed?

8. What safeguards should I follow when taking an over-the-counter medication?

9. How can I tell if an over-the-counter medicine has been tampered with?

10. How can I remember to take my medicine?

11. What's a yearly medicine checkup, and why is it a good idea?

12. What should I remember when giving medicine to a child?

13. What precautions should I take if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?

14. Where can I go to learn more?

Answers

1. How can I get the most benefits from a prescription medicine with the fewest risks?

The first—and arguably most important step—is to ask your doctor questions about each new prescription. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises asking:

  • What is the medicine's name, and what is it supposed to do?
  • How and when do I take it, and for how long?
  • What foods, drinks, other medicines or activities should I avoid while taking this medication?
  • Will this new medication work safely with other prescription, nonprescription or herbal medicines I am taking?
  • Are there side effects, and what should I do if they occur?
  • Will the medication affect my sleep or activity cycle?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • Are there any monitoring tests required—for example, tests to check for liver or kidney function?
  • Is there written information about the medicine?
Write down the answers to these questions right away so you'll remember the details.

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2. Is there anything I should tell my doctor before he or she prescribes a drug?

Always tell your doctor if you are breastfeeding or may be pregnant, cautions the BeMedWise Program at NeedyMeds.

You should also tell your doctor if you are allergic to any drugs or foods, have any illnesses or problems that another doctor is treating you for, follow a special diet or use dietary supplements, use alcohol or tobacco, or are taking any other medicines.

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3. Does my doctor need to know about both the prescription and over-the-counter drugs that I take?

Yes. In fact, for accuracy, it's a good idea to keep a list of all the prescription and over-the-counter medications that you regularly use. Write down the name of the drug, the doctor who prescribed it, how much you take and when you take it. It's especially important to alert your doctor to any new medicines that another doctor has prescribed for you and any over-the-counter medications that you started taking since your last visit.

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4. Do I have a say in determining the medicine my doctor prescribes?

You do as long as you speak up. By making your needs known, you're more likely to get the best possible treatment for you. So let your doctor know if you want the medication with the fewest possible side effects—or the fewest doses to take each day. If cost is a concern, ask your doctor if there is a generic drug or another lower-cost medicine you can take.

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5. I've heard it's a good idea to use only one pharmacy when filling my prescriptions. Is this true?

Yes, it is. Doing so will help your pharmacist keep better track of your medicines, thereby avoiding the risk of potentially dangerous drug interactions.

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6. What precautions are wise once I start taking a prescription medicine?

Read the label carefully—in adequate light—before taking any doses. Also, contact your doctor or pharmacist if any new or unexpected symptoms appear. Take the full prescription—even if your symptoms have disappeared. Always let your doctor know if you are not taking your medicine as directed. And never share your medicine with someone else.

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7. Why is it so important to take any medication—prescription or over-the-counter—as directed?

Carefully following your doctor's directions will allow you to get the medicine's full benefits. And you'll also avoid dangerous problems. For example, some people end up at a hospital emergency room because they take too much or too little of a medicine or mix the wrong medicines, foods or drinks.

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8. What safeguards should I follow when taking an over-the-counter medication?

Carefully read all medicine labels to find out about ingredients, proper use, warnings and expiration dates. Then precisely follow all directions. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before using the product, especially if you use other medicines. And never try to remember the dose used during a previous illness; read the label each time.

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9. How can I tell if an over-the-counter medicine has been tampered with?

Examine the package for signs of tampering, such as broken seals, puncture holes, or opened or damaged wrappings. In addition, never take a medicine that is discolored, has an unusual odor or seems suspicious in any other way.

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10. How can I remember to take my medicine?

Several products—often called compliance aids—can help remind you to take your doses on time and keep track of the doses you've taken. These include check-off calendars, containers with separate sections for daily doses and caps that beep when it's time to take a dose. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about what's available.

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11. What's a yearly medicine checkup, and why is it a good idea?

The yearly checkup is one of the best ways to spot hidden medicine problems. Every year, schedule a time with your pharmacist or doctor to review the medicines you take. He or she can check for duplicate medicines and improper doses and also help you eliminate medicines you may no longer need.

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12. What should I remember when giving medicine to a child?

Among other things, check with your child's doctor before giving more than one medicine at a time. And never give aspirin to your child without your doctor's approval. Aspirin may increase the risk of your child developing Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious illness.

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13. What precautions should I take if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to a healthcare provider before taking any prescription or over-the-counter medicines. Some medicines can cause birth defects if they're taken during pregnancy. Others can pass through breast milk to babies.

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14. Where can I go to learn more?

To learn more about medication safety, visit the Medications health topic center. You can also learn more at these websites:

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reviewed 4/30/2019

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