How to Get the Most From Your Medicine

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What do I need to know?

Medicines can help you feel better. But if medicines are taken incorrectly, they can actually make you feel worse. To use prescription medicines and medicines you can buy over-the-counter (without a prescription) correctly, follow the guidelines below.

What questions should I ask my doctor about my medicines?

If there is something you don’t understand about a medicine you’re taking, ask your doctor. If you still don’t understand, ask your doctor to explain things more clearly. If you are taking more than one medicine, be sure to ask how the medicines will work together in your body. Sometimes medicines cause problems when they are taken together (called a drug interaction).

Below is a list of questions you can ask your doctor to learn how to use each medicine correctly and safely:

  • What does the medicine do?
  • When and how should I take the medicine?
  • What side effects (reactions your body may have to the medicine) could I have?
  • Will the medicine react to any other medicines, foods or drinks?
  • Should I avoid any activities while I’m taking the medicine?
  • What should I do if I forget to take the medicine?
  • How will I know whether the medicine is working?

How can I remind myself to take my medicine?

Make your medicine part of your daily routine by taking it at the same time (or times) every day, such as when you wake up or with meals. Keep the medicine bottle(s) in a place you see often, such as on the kitchen counter. (Make sure that medicines are in childproof containers and kept out of the reach of children.)

Should I avoid any foods, drinks or activities while I’m taking medicine?

Talk to your doctor about things to avoid while you are taking a prescription medicine. Some foods can cause side effects (such as an upset stomach) if you are taking medicine. Drinking alcohol is generally not a good idea while you are taking medicine. Some medicines cause reactions such as sun sensitivity (which increases your risk of sunburn or sun rash), so you may have to limit your outdoor activities or protect your skin from the sun.

If you are taking an over-the-counter medicine, read the label to see what to avoid while you are taking it. Follow the instructions just as you would with a prescription medicine. If you have questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

What’s the difference between generic and brand name medicines?

Just like foods, some medicines come in both brand names and generics. Generic medicines are generally cheaper. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if a generic form of your prescription medicine will work for you.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines also come in generics. Compare the lists of ingredients. If the generic has the same ingredients as the brand name, you may want to consider using it. But be careful: The generic may contain different amounts of certain medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about which medicine to choose.

What if I don’t feel better even though I’m taking my medicine?

Any medicine needs time to work. When you are given a prescription, ask your doctor how long it should take for the medicine to make you feel better. It might take time to find the correct medicine for you and the correct amount of it. Call your doctor if you have concerns about what you’re taking or if you don’t feel better after taking your medicine as prescribed.

If you’re trying to treat yourself with an over-the-counter medicine and it doesn’t seem to be working, call your doctor. Your symptoms can get much worse if you wait too long to get treated by your doctor.

Things to know about each medicine you take

  • Name (generic name and brand name)
  • Reason for taking it
  • How much to take and how often to take it
  • Possible side effects and what to do if you have them
  • How long to continue taking it
  • Special instructions (taking it at bedtime, with meals, on an empty stomach, etc.)

Medicine do’s and don’ts

  • Do read the label carefully.
  • Do take your medicine exactly as your doctor tells you to.
  • Do make sure that each of your doctors (if you see more than one) has a list of all of the medicines you’re taking
  • Do ask your doctor to help you make a schedule (if you are taking more than one medicine) so you know what medicines to take at what times of the day.
  • Do consider using one pharmacy for all your prescriptions. The pharmacist can help you keep track of what you’re taking.
  • Do make sure everyone you live with knows what medicine you’re taking and when you’re supposed to take it.
  • Don’t combine prescription medicines and over-the-counter medicines unless your doctor says it’s okay.
  • Don’t stop taking a medicine or change how much you take or how often you take it without first talking to your doctor.
  • Don’t take someone else’s medicine.
  • Don’t use medicine after its expiration date.
  • Don’t crush, break or chew tablets or capsules unless your doctor tells you it’s okay. Some medicines won’t work correctly unless they are swallowed whole.

Tips for choosing OTC medicines

  • If you have questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Although it can seem overwhelming, take the time to look at all the choices.
  • Read the label carefully, and note what symptoms the medicine will treat.
  • Look for a medicine that will treat only the symptoms you have. For example, if you have only a runny nose, don’t pick a medicine that also treats coughs and headaches.
  • Note how much medicine you should take and what side effects it may cause.
  • Note what medicines or foods you should not take with the medicine.
  • Check to see if the medicine causes problems for people with certain health problems (such as asthma or high blood pressure).