Taking Medicines

Taking Medicines Safely

Older people as a group tend to have more long-term, chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease than any other age group. Because they may have a number of health problems or issues at the same time, it is common for older people to take many different drugs. Here are some tips on how to take medicines safely and get the best results from them.

(Watch the video to learn how to avoid medication mistakes. To enlarge the videos appearing on this page, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner of the video. To reduce the videos, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

Understanding Your Medication

If your doctor prescribes a medication for your condition, try to find out as much about it as you can, including how to take it properly. Ask the following questions and write down the answers before leaving the doctor's office.

  • What is the name of the medicine and why am I taking it?
  • What medical condition does this medicine treat?
  • How does it treat my condition?
  • What is the name of its active ingredient?
  • Did you check that it doesn’t contain anything I’m allergic to?
  • How should I store the medication? Does it need to be refrigerated?
  • Can the pharmacist substitute a less expensive, generic form of the medicine?

Find Out How to Take the Medication

Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or nurse about the right way to take any medicine before you start to use it. Ask questions when you don't know the meaning of a word, or when instructions aren't clear.

(Watch the video to learn how to take medications safely.)

Here are some specific questions to ask.

  • Should I take it as needed or on a schedule?
  • Should I take it at a certain time of day?
  • How much should I take each time?
  • Do I need to take it with food?
  • Do I need to drink a full glass of water with it?
  • May I drink alcohol while on this medication?
  • How long will I have to take it?

Ask What to Expect

  • How will I feel once I start taking this medicine?
  • How will I know if this medicine is working?
  • If I forget to take it, what should I do?
  • What side effects might I expect? Should I report them?
  • Can I safely mix this medicine with the remedies, vitamins, and over-the-counter drugs I am taking?

Tips for Taking Medicines Properly

Taking different medicines is not always easy to do properly. It may be hard to remember what each medicine is for, and how and when you should take each one. Here are some helpful hints about taking medicines.

  • Check the label on your medicine before taking it to make sure that it is for the correct person -- you.
  • Read and save any written information that comes with the medicine.
  • Take the medicine according to the schedule on the label.
  • Don't take more or less than the prescribed amount of any medicine.
  • If swallowing tablets is difficult, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether there is a liquid form of the medicine or whether you could crush your tablets. However, do NOT break, crush, or chew tablets without asking a health professional first.

  • Get into the habit of checking the expiration dates on your medicine bottles, and throw away medicine that has expired.
  • Try to set and follow a routine for taking your medicines.

(Watch the video to learn why expiration dates on medications matter.)

Know the Active and Inactive Ingredients

Prescription and over-the-counter medicines almost always contain several ingredients. Some of the ingredients in a medicine are not directly involved in its main job. These are called inactive ingredients. Examples of inactive ingredients include the substances that give a lozenge color or flavor, or ingredients that ensure the drug within a capsule gets released at a controlled rate.

The active ingredients in medicines are the chemical compounds that work with your body to treat your condition or bring relief of your symptoms. Learn which active ingredients are in the prescription and over-the-counter medicines you are taking.

For example, over-the-counter pain relievers usually contain one or more of these active ingredients.

  • acetaminophen
  • ibuprofen
  • naproxen sodium
  • aspirin

Some medicines are designed to treat more than one condition, so they have more than one active ingredient. Many cold and flu remedies are an example of this. They might contain a combination of ingredients to sooth a sore throat, calm a cough, stop up a runny nose and bring down a fever.

Check Your Intake of Active Ingredients

Don't take more than one medicine that contains the same active ingredient(s). For example, if your cough syrup contains acetaminophen, don’t take a pain reliever that contains acetaminophen while you are using the cough syrup. Taking more than one medicine that has the same active ingredient could result in getting too much of that ingredient. Too much of any one ingredient might damage your liver or lead to other serious health problems.


Do the Active Ingredients Have Side Effects?

Always read the labels on the over-the-counter products you are taking to find out whether the active ingredients have side effects. For example, antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Caffeine, which is present in some over-the-counter medicines, can interact with certain drugs or can cause problems with underlying conditions such as high blood pressure

Be Aware of Allergic Reactions

Check the labels of your prescription medicines before you start taking them to ensure you are not allergic to any of the ingredients. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist have an up-to-date list of your allergies so they don’t give you a medicine that contains something you are allergic to.

Your Pharmacist Is a Resource

Your pharmacist is an important part of your healthcare team. If you have questions about your medicine after you leave the doctor’s office, the pharmacist can answer many of them. For example, a pharmacist can tell you how and when to take your medicine, whether a drug may change how another medicine you are taking works, and which side effects, if any, you are most likely to experience. Also, the pharmacist can answer questions about over-the-counter medications.

Filling Your Prescriptions

Try to have all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so your records are in one place. The pharmacist will keep track of all your medications and will be able to tell you if a new drug might cause problems. If you’re not able to use just one pharmacy, show the new pharmacist your list of medicines and over-the-counter drugs when you drop off your prescription.

When you have a prescription filled, take these steps to make sure you take your medications safely.

  • Tell the pharmacist if you have trouble swallowing pills. There may be liquid medicine available. Do not chew, break, or crush tablets without first finding out if the drug will still work.
  • Make sure you can read and understand the name of the medicine and the directions on the container and on the color-coded warning stickers on the bottle. If the label is hard to read, ask your pharmacist to use larger type.
  • Check that you can open the container. If not, ask the pharmacist to put your medicines in bottles that are easier to open.
  • Ask about special instructions on where to store a medicine. For example, should it be kept in the refrigerator or in a dry place?
  • Check the label on your medicine before leaving the pharmacy. It should have your name on it and the directions given by your doctor. If it doesn’t, don’t take it, and talk with the pharmacist.

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