The most important step to medication safety is to educate yourself about the specific drugs you and your family are taking and the conditions they are intended to treat. Medications are intended to make you better, but they can cause harm if they are used or stored improperly. Here are basic guidelines for keeping you and your family safe while using medications safely and effectively.
At the Doctor's Office and Pharmacy
- Keep a list of all medications. Include all the medications (prescription, over-the-counter, herbal and supplements) that you or those you care for take, even if you buy them all from the same pharmacy. The list should include: the name, color and imprint on each tablet or capsule; the date of the prescription; the dose or strength; what it is for; how much you take and how often; how long you are supposed to take it; any foods or other things to avoid; likely side effects; side effects you experienced; name and phone number of the prescriber and the pharmacy. Also list any medication or food allergies. Update the list frequently and make it available to all of your health care providers. Ask your pharmacist or health care provider to review your medications periodically
- Ask questions. Before you leave your health care professional's office, make sure you know what the prescription is for and how it should be taken. You can double-check these facts at the pharmacy.
- Enlist your pharmacist's help. Go over dosing instructions with your pharmacist. Make sure you can read and understand the instructions. Ask your pharmacist what the concentration of the prescription was supposed to be and double-check that the concentration is correct. Ask the pharmacist to open the bottle to make sure the medication looks right. You should also look. If you've taken the medication before, does it look the same? If not, make sure your pharmacist dispensed the right drug. Sometimes the same drug may look different if it came from a different manufacturer. Also ask your pharmacist what the medication will do for you and be sure the answer makes sense. If you are filling a prescription to treat an infection, for example, but the pharmacist says the drug is for asthma, you'll know a mistake has been made.
- Ask about potential side effects or adverse reactions. Your pharmacist or doctor can tell you if there are major or common side effects and what you should do in case you experience any side effects or reactions. If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, be sure and ask whether the drugs are safe for you and your baby.
Ask about interactions. Your health care professional or pharmacist can tell you what drugs may interact with each other or with certain foods or beverages. Taking certain combinations of medications or medications and foods/beverages can either cause dangerous side effects or affect the potency of one or more of the drugs. Find out more about drug interactions How to Avoid Drug Interactions.
Ask your pharmacist how you should store the medication. Some drugs need to be refrigerated.
- Use caution when ordering prescriptions online. While some websites offer great prices on prescription drugs, not all drug-dispensing sites are legitimate. You can check the legitimacy of a U.S. drug-dispensing website on the VIPPS page (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) at the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy Web site at www.nabp.net. Make sure the site has an address and telephone number and allows you direct access to a registered pharmacist. When you receive the medication, ask the site's pharmacist all the same questions you would ask your local drugstore pharmacist.
- Check the credentials. Only do business with websites that require a prescription from a U.S.-licensed doctor or other health care professional who can prescribe medicine.
- Check with your doctor before purchasing drugs from a foreign country. If you plan to purchase drugs from a foreign country, talk to your health care professional about the risks involved. Foreign outlets may distribute drugs that are expired, subpotent, contaminated or counterfeit, or they may have been packaged or stored under inappropriate conditions. They may also contain a wrong or contraindicated product, an incorrect dose or inadequate directions. The labeling may not be in English so important information may not be available.
Taking the Medication
- Read labels carefully. Take all medications as directed, whether prescription, nonprescription or supplements. Read the label every time you take the medication to prevent mistakes. OTCs labels may have changed from the last time you purchased them. Find out more about reading labels at How to Safely Choose and Use Nonprescription Medicines.
- Take as directed. If you don't take drugs correctly—at the right time of day or with or without food, for example—the medications may not work as well as they should. Do not take more or less than the label indicates. When giving OTC medications, herbal agents or supplements to children, do not give adult doses or guess at the dose you should give them. To find out more about medication safety for children, visit Medication Safety and Your Child. Follow instructions on the label and from your health care professional. If you have questions, ask your pharmacist or health care professional.
- Use the correct measure. If you are taking a liquid medication or giving one to your child, be sure to use the correct measuring device. Some medications come with marked cups or droppers. Keep them with the medication and don't use the cup or dropper for a different medication. Don't use household spoons, which vary in size. Use a measuring spoon. Your best bet is to get a medicine spoon—or an oral syringe—at the pharmacy (often they are free). Do not use a hypodermic syringe to draw the medicine up.
- Don't mess with the medicine. Don't chew, crush or break capsules or tablets or mix with a liquid unless instructed. Your body could absorb some long-acting medications too quickly if you chew or crush them. Other medications may be ineffective or could make you sick.
- Use a pill cutter if appropriate. If your health care professional prescribes a medication that only comes in one dosage that can be safely split and you only need one-half the dose, purchase a pill cutter or ask the pharmacist to split the pills. You can buy an inexpensive pill cutter at your local drugstore. They make cutting pills easier, more even, and you won't lose half of the pill when it flies onto the floor.
- Do not take medicine you can't see. Make sure it's light enough to read the label and that you're wearing your glasses, if needed.
- Do not use or share prescription medications. Never share prescriptions; always check with your health care professional before taking a prescription.
- Keep track of your medication schedule. Use a memory aid to help you take your medications at the correct times. For example, if you have to take your medication in the morning on an empty stomach, you might remember to take it when you brush your teeth every morning. If you take medications for long-term or chronic ailments, it may be beneficial to use an inexpensive medicine dispenser that you fill each week. You may also track medications by marking a calendar or keeping a chart or log, either on paper or electronically. Forgetting to take medication is not uncommon. Whether or not you should take a missed dose depends on the drug. If you didn't get enough information on what to do in this situation, call your pharmacist or doctor's office for advice.
- Don't stop or change your dose. Even if you are feeling better, talk to your health care professional before changing your medication. Otherwise your care can be compromised.
- Seek help for side effects. If you believe you are experiencing side effects after you begin taking medications, contact your health care professional. Don't try to adjust your dosage, either to minimize side effects or save money.
Storing and Disposing of Medications
- Keep medications in their original containers (except when using a medication dispenser). You'll know what they are and how to take them.
- Keep medications out of direct sunlight and away from moisture.
- Store medications safely. If you have children or children visit your home, you should keep your medications in a locked box or cabinet where children can't see or reach them. Do not store your medications with household chemicals or cleaners, and don't store them in the same place you keep pets' medications. Also, don't store tubes of ointments or creams near your toothpaste—a mistake could range from unpleasant to serious.
- Consider the cap. If you have difficulty opening your medications because they have child-resistant caps, ask your health care professional and pharmacist for a non-child-resistant cap. This should only be done if there are no children living in the home or visiting the home, and the prescription should be kept in the medicine cabinet. If you use child-resistant caps, make sure you tighten them when you're finished taking your medicine or a child could still get into your medication.
- Never keep old medications and never self-medicate with prescription drugs when you think you know the nature of the problem. Monitor prescription and OTC "use by" dates and throw away expired ones. Some drugs may become toxic after the due date, while others simply lose their potency.
- Dispose of all expired medications properly. The FDA offers the following guidelines for proper disposal of medications: Follow any specific instructions for disposal that are printed on the medication label or patient information. Do not flush the medication down the toilet unless the instructions specifically tell you to do so. If no instructions are included, take the medication out of its original container and mix it with something undesirable, such as kitty litter or coffee grounds to make it less appealing to children, pets or anyone who may go through your trash. Then place the medication in an empty can, sealable bag or other type of container to prevent it from leaking and throw it in your household garbage.