Parenting Guild

Use Medicines Safely

Medicines can cure an illness, reduce the risk of sickness, or help us cope with a long-term disease. But they can also cause serious problems if taken incorrectly. Mistakes with medicines happen when people don't understand why, how, and when to take medications.

There are two kinds of medicines: those you buy over the counter without seeing a doctor and those that a doctor must prescribe. Both kinds can be strong. Find out about any medicine BEFORE you take it.

Inform Your Doctor and Pharmacist

Always talk to your doctor and pharmacist about your medicines. The following information will be valuable to them in treating you:

Tell them...
  • the names of all medicines you are taking now, including any non prescription medicines. It helps to make a list or take the medicines to show them.
  • the doses of each medicine.
  • if you have ever had problems (allergies or reactions) with a medicine.
  • if you are pregnant or nursing a baby.
Ask Questions

Your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist are responsible for helping you understand prescription medicines well enough to take them safely. However, you are responsible for learning what you need to know about any medication you will take or will give to a family member. Find out this information before you leave the health clinic or pharmacy. Your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist are not mind readers. Remember -- ask questions. If they seem to avoid answering your questions, find health professionals who will answer them.

Ask your doctor and pharmacist these questions about your medicines:
  • What is the name of this medicine, and how will it help me?
  • How soon can I expect it to work?
  • Is there another treatment for my problem instead of a medicine?
  • What will happen if I don't take this medicine?
  • How do I take this medicine--with food or on an empty stomach?
  • How often do I take it (how many times a day) and for how long?
  • What foods, drinks, other medicines, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Are there any side effects, and what do I do if they occur?
Report Reactions

Report to your doctor how the medicine is working. Some medicines may cause problems even if you take them the right way. Call the doctor if you think any medicine is making you feel worse. Report any new symptoms to your doctor. If you develop a rash or shortness of breath while taking a medicine, especially an antibiotic, do not take the next dose until you have talked with a doctor.

You need to ask questions to find out what effect foods and other medicines might have on a new medicine. Some foods and drinks can make the medicine work too fast or too slowly or even not at all. Other foods and medicines may cause a life-threatening reaction. Alcohol can be very dangerous when taken with some medicines.

Some examples of medications and foods that react with each other are as follows:
  • MAO Inhibitors and aged or fermented foods
  • Tetracycline and milk products
  • Natural licorice and high blood pressure medicines
  • Coumadin and liver or green, leafy vegetables
Regular use of medicines such as mineral oil, diuretics or water pills, birth control pills, and antacids can cause nutritional deficiencies over a period of time. Your doctor needs to be aware that you are taking these medicines so imbalances can be detected.

Avoid Common Mistakes

If you don't understand the answers your doctor and pharmacist give you, ask them to explain again. Get written information or take notes. More people over age 65 are admitted to the hospital for medicine problems than for any other reason. And those under age 65 have some of the same problems. Studies have shown that half of all prescriptions are taken incorrectly.

The most common mistakes in taking medicines are the following:
  • Taking too much or not enough of the medicine
  • Not taking the medicine for the recommended period of time
  • Taking too many different medicines that react with each other
  • Not taking the medicine at all
Remember These Lifesavers

The best decisions about medicines are made together by your doctor and you. Some of these discussions can be real lifesavers!

Here are some lifesaving guidelines:
  • Take all of your medicines or a list of them to your doctor and pharmacist for review every time you visit the clinic or pharmacy.
  • Report regularly to your doctor the effects of the medicines you take.
  • Don't take any medicine unless you are sure that it is really necessary.
  • Assume that any new symptom you develop after starting a new medicine is caused by the medicine.
  • When a specialist wants you to start a new medicine, get your primary doctor's okay.
Take Safety Precautions

Keep safety precautions in mind when buying, using, and storing medicines. Take the opportunity to instruct children about using medicines safely.
  • When you buy medicine, check it at the store to make sure no one else has opened it.
  • Check to see if the medicine looks normal and like what you expected. If you think it looks old or does not look like you expected, ask the pharmacist to double check it. You might ask, "Is this Capoten for high blood pressure?"
  • Never take anyone else's prescription medicine, and flush any unused medicine down the toilet.
  • Keep all medications out of reach of children -- locked up, if possible. Very often, grandparents' homes are the place where children are poisoned with medicines. Post the number of the Regional Poison Control Center next to the phone, and keep Ipecac syrup (to induce vomiting) on hand for use if advised.
  • Teach all children about medicine, and call it "medicine," not "candy" or "drugs". Explain that medicine can help make them well if they are sick but can be very dangerous, like poison, if taken the wrong way. Talk about the difference between medicine and illegal drugs.

By Linda Patterson, R.N., M.S.N., Extension Health Education Specialist
This document is public information and may be reproduced in part or in total.

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