When your doctor prescribes you a medication, it will come with directions about how and when to take it. Whether it’s a pill, a liquid, a spray or a topical cream or ointment, you will get instructions for how much to take, how often and for how long.
It’s important that you follow the instructions to get the most benefit from your medicine—and to avoid serious problems that could arise if you don’t.
We talked with UNC Health pharmacist LeRoy Van Veld, PharmD, about why following directions for taking your prescription medicines is so important.
“Researchers study medicines very carefully to find the right balance between efficacy—or how the drug works—and safety,” he says. “The medicines will do the most good with the least amount of risk if patients follow the instructions.”
Here are six things Van Veld suggests all patients remember about taking their medicines.
1. Take your medicine on time.
The directions that come with your prescription will tell you how often to take it—every two hours, at bedtime or some other specific interval—and that timing matters.
“The reason is to make sure that the most effective concentration of the medicine is in your bloodstream,” Van Veld says. “Concentrations go up and down depending on how much you take (dose) and the timing of taking the medication (intervals). We call these peaks and troughs. When the medicine starts to get out of your system or wear off, then it’s time to add more.”
If you forget to take your medicine, take it as soon as you remember. Do not double up on the dose. If you have forgotten to take it for more than a day or two, talk to your pharmacist or doctor before resuming.
2. Don’t stop taking your medicine early without talking to your doctor.
Sometimes people start feeling better and think they don’t need to keep taking their medicine. Unfortunately, that could leave you with worse problems than when you started.
This advice is especially important for antibiotics, Van Veld says. “If you stop taking your antibiotic or start skipping doses, then the infection is not being eradicated effectively.”
Antibiotics will kill off the weakest bacteria in your system first. If you stop taking your antibiotic before all the bacteria are killed, the stronger bugs will multiply.
“Then, if you pass that infection on to someone else, you’re giving them stronger bacteria, too,” he says. “Often we wind up with bugs that the initial, first-line medicines can’t kill—drug-resistant bacteria.”
Antidepressants are another medicine that you shouldn’t stop taking without talking with your doctor.
“People may feel like they have gotten over their depression or anxiety,” Van Veld says, “but they are likely feeling better because the medicine is working.”
Your doctor can help develop a plan to decrease your dose gradually, if appropriate.
3. Take with food—or without food—as directed.
Eating food changes the level of acid in your stomach, and acid can have an effect on medicines. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it hurts. The directions on your medicine will tell you whether to take it with food, or how long before or after eating you should take your dose.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether you should avoid certain foods when taking a particular medicine.
“Calcium can bind with some medicines and make them not work as well as they should,” Van Veld says. “You might need to avoid foods that are high in calcium, like leafy greens or dairy products.”
Grapefruit is another common food that can interfere with the way some medications work.
4. Store your medicines in a safe, climate-controlled place.
Pharmaceutical companies test their medicines over time and at various temperatures and humidity levels to make sure they stay safe and effective under different conditions. Some medicines require refrigeration. Most just need to be stored at room temperature and out of the sun, like in a medicine cabinet. Most medicines also have an expiration date.
“It’s best to be careful with medicines and store them safely,” Van Veld says.
That also means keeping them out of the reach of children or anyone else who might take them improperly.
5. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about any other medicines you are taking.
Many people get prescriptions from multiple sources. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist know about all the medicines you are taking. You can bring a list to your doctor visits, bring the medicine in its bottle or packaging, or take a photo of the labels, including the medicine’s name and dosage.
Don’t forget to mention any over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you take for pain, such as Tylenol or Advil, or for other issues—for example, antacids, cold medications and allergy treatments. Also be sure to include any herbal medications, including supplements, teas and pills.
Some prescription medicines may contain the same active ingredients as the OTC medicines, and you could end up with too much in your body. Or different ingredients may not work well together. In rare cases, they could be toxic.
6. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you can’t afford your prescription.
Prescription medications can be expensive. If you are struggling to pay for your prescriptions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Sometimes, a different medication that is less expensive will work just as well. Also, many medications have generic versions.
“Generics contain the same active ingredients as their brand-name counterparts,” Van Veld says. “Generics can be a fraction of the cost of brand-name drugs.”
Some drug manufacturers have patient assistance programs. Ask your doctor about these. Some pharmacies and hospitals also offer help. UNC Health has a medication assistance program for patients. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you qualify.
Learn more about safe and easy medication disposal using the blue MedSafe boxes at UNC Hospitals locations in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.