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Medicines: Using Them Safely

Why is it important to use medicine safely?

When used properly, medicines can be helpful or even life-saving. Using them the wrong way, however, may be dangerous. Make sure you follow directions and take your medicines safely.

Some medicines:

  • Can change the way other medicines work
  • Might cause harmful side effects when combined with another medicine
  • May be helpful for one medical problem but make another condition worse

How do I use my medicine safely?

If you are taking a lot of different medicines, it can be hard to keep track of when to take each one and how much to take. To take your medicines safely, follow these guidelines:

  • Follow the directions that come with your medicine, including information about food or alcohol. Make sure you know how and when to take your medicine. Don’t take more or less than you are supposed to take. If you miss a dose of your medicine, take it as soon as you remember. If it is close to time for the next dose, don’t take both doses unless you check with your provider first. Don’t stop taking your medicine without talking to your provider first.
  • Try to get all of your prescriptions filled at the same place. Your pharmacist can help make sure that all of your medicines are safe to take together.
  • Keep a list of your medicines with you. List all of the prescription medicines, nonprescription medicines, supplements, natural remedies, and vitamins that you take. Tell all healthcare providers who treat you about all of the products you are taking.
  • Many medicines have side effects. A side effect is a symptom or problem that is caused by the medicine. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist what side effects the medicine may cause and what you should do if you have side effects.
  • Use a pillbox (also called a dose-reminder box) if you have trouble remembering to take your medicines as they’re prescribed. These boxes can help you see at a glance if you have taken your medicine for the day. Make sure that you take the right amount of medicine at the right time. Don’t take medicines from unlabeled containers.
  • Store medicines according to the directions on the label. Keep them in their original containers unless you use a “dose-reminder” box. Don’t take medicines from unlabeled containers.
  • Keep medicines for emergencies in a safe place where you can find them easily.
  • Don’t keep medicines on a bedside table (except emergency medicines such as nitroglycerin). You may take the wrong medicine or wrong dose when you are not fully awake or alert. Don’t take medicines in the dark.
  • Keep medicines taken by mouth separate from other medicines. Some medicines used on the skin, for example, may be poisonous if you swallow them.
  • Keep all medicines out of the reach of children.
  • Unless they are supposed to be taken only when you need them, don’t save prescription medicines to use at a later time. Most medicines, such as antibiotics, are meant to be taken until they are all gone, which may be well after you are feeling better.
  • Don’t use medicines that are past the expiration date on the label. If a drug does not have an expiration date, write down the date you bought it. Check with a pharmacist before using it if it is more than 1 year old. Ask your pharmacist about the best way to throw away outdated medicines and medicines you no longer need.
  • Never take medicine that was prescribed for someone else and don’t share your prescription medicines with others, even when they seem to have the same symptoms. What may be good for you may be harmful to others.
  • Tell all of your providers about any drug or food allergies you have.
  • When you refill a prescription, check with your pharmacist if the medicine looks different in color, size, or shape from your previous prescription. Because a medicine may be made by different manufacturers, the pills may look different from one refill to the next. But don’t assume that’s why your medicine looks different if it’s a new refill. Always ask.

If you have any questions, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for more information. Be sure to keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-08-01
Last reviewed: 2014-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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