Taking your medication matters

Many of us don't use our medication properly. This can lead to serious consequences. Here's what could happen to you if you don't take your medication as directed by your doctor:

  • You could end up in the emergency room or the hospital. Around 30% of emergency room visits related to medication use are due to improper use of medications, and some of these visits lead to hospitalization.
  • Your symptoms could get worse. If you're taking a medication to control your symptoms, your symptoms may worsen if you're not using it properly. For example, antibiotics need to be finished even if you are feeling better. If you stop treatment early, the infection may come back and you could be left feeling worse than before. Similarly, if you are combining certain medications, interactions between them can cause unwanted side effects, or the effectiveness of one medication may be altered. For example, certain antibiotics should not be combined with multivitamins or antacids.
  • You could suffer long-term complications if your condition is not properly treated. People with long-term health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol can end up with complications such as heart attacks or strokes if their condition is not kept under control with medication.
  • Your medication could stop working. Some medications, such as oral contraceptives and HIV medications, need to be taken on a strict schedule. If you miss doses or take them late, your medication could become less effective or even stop working for you altogether. In the case of HIV medications, you may then need to be switched to another medication. This cuts into the number of options that you have left to treat your condition. Studies show that you need to take at least 95% of your doses properly in order to keep your HIV medications working.
  • You could experience more side effects. If you are not taking the medication properly, or taking too much, you are at a higher risk of side effects.
  • You could become dependent on your medication. Some medications, such as sedatives, can cause dependence if they are not used properly.
  • You could go into withdrawal. For some medications, such as hormone therapy, medications for mental health disorders, or thyroid medications, it may not be safe to suddenly stop taking them. Instead, your doctor or pharmacist can suggest ways to gradually reduce your dose so that you can avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Not sure if you're taking your medication properly? See "Are you putting your health at risk?" and take our self-assessment questionnaire to find out. For tips to help make it easier to take your medication, see "Stick to your treatment, the easy way!"

Are you putting your health at risk?

Could the way you're taking your medications be putting your health at risk? Take our self-assessment questionnaire to find out:

Do any of the following statements describe you (for one or more of your medications)?

How you feel about your medication:

  • I'm not sure if I really need this medication.
  • I'm not sure if the medication is really helping.
  • I feel that it doesn't really make a difference if I miss a dose of my medication.

What you know about your medication:

  • I'm not sure how to use my medication.
  • I'm not sure how to store my medication.
  • I'm not sure what to do if I miss a dose of my medication.

How you're taking your medication:

  • I didn't fill the prescription at all.
  • When I run out of medication, I don't refill it right away.
  • I sometimes miss doses of my medication.
  • I sometimes forget whether I've taken my medication.
  • I have been taking less of my medication so that it will last longer because it is expensive.
  • I have stopped my medication or lowered the dose on my own because of side effects (without checking with my doctor first).
  • I have stopped my medication or lowered the dose on my own because my symptoms seem to be getting better (without checking with my doctor first).

If you answered "Yes" to any of these statements, your health may be at risk because of the way you're taking your medication. Talk to your pharmacist about your concerns and how to use your medication properly. Read "Your medication: 11 things you must know" to find out what to ask your pharmacist.

If you're having problems taking your medication as directed, you're not alone! On average, 50% of all people on long-term medications are not taking them as directed. So don't be embarrassed – your pharmacist is there to help you, not to judge you. By trying to stick to treatment, you're taking a valuable step towards better health! For more information on what you can do, read "Stick to your treatment, the easy way!"

Your medication: 11 things you must know

Improper medication use is a major cause of health problems and preventable emergency department visits. Don't end up in the emergency room – make sure you know your medication and how to use it.

Here are 11 things you must know to protect your health:

  1. What is this medication called?
  2. Why am I taking this medication?
  3. Is this medication intended to replace any of my other medications?
  4. What is the proper way to use this medication?
    1. How much should I take?
    2. How often should I take it?
    3. When is the best time of day to take it?
  5. What should I do if I forget to take a dose?
  6. How do I safely store the medication, and how long is it good for?
  7. What side effects can this medication cause, and how should I deal with them?
  8. When should I seek emergency medical attention for a side effect?
  9. How long should I continue taking this medication?
  10. How can I safely stop the medication? (For some medications, you'll need to gradually reduce your dose to prevent withdrawal symptoms – ask your pharmacist whether yours is one of them.)
  11. Will this medication interact with any of my other medications, foods, alcohol, or alternative medical treatments (such as herbals or homeopathy)?

Knowing the answers to these questions could save your life. If you aren't sure of the answers, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

Stick to your treatment, the easy way!

Having trouble sticking to your treatment? You're not alone. Half of all people prescribed medications are not using them properly or not using them at all! This can lead to serious health problems, hospitalization, and emergency room visits.

You can protect your health by taking your medication as directed by your doctor. Sometimes this can be hard. Here are a few ways to make it easier:

Sign up for reminders. Many pharmacies offer programs to remind you when it's time to refill your medication. And some pharmacies and drug companies offer reminder services (by phone or email) to help you remember to take your medication. Check with your pharmacist to find out about reminder services.

Simplify. Talk to your pharmacist about ways to make your medication routine simpler. You may choose to:

  • switch to medications that are taken less often (e.g., once a day)
  • switch to combination products (pills containing 2 or more different medications)
  • switch the dosage form, if another one is available that is easier for you to take (e.g., tablet to liquid)
  • stop medications that you no longer need

Ask for a medication list. Your pharmacist can review your current medications, suggest changes to simplify and improve your medication routine, and provide you with a medication list to help you remember which medications you are taking and when. Keep your medication list with you and bring it to your medical visits so it can be kept up to date.

Make it part of your routine. Take the medication at the same time as something else you do regularly, such as brushing your teeth. Check with your pharmacist first to see whether your medication needs to be taken with food, on an empty stomach, or at a particular time of day in order to work best.

Organize your medications with a dosette or blister pack. These handy packages organize your medications by day or by time of day (e.g., morning, noon, afternoon, bedtime). Blister packs are made by your pharmacy, while dosettes are filled by your pharmacist or caregiver (or you can fill them yourself). Dosettes and blister packs make it easy to tell which medications should be taken at what times, and let you see whether you've taken a dose.

Use a memory aid. There are many memory aids available. Talk to your pharmacist about which one is best for you:

  • Alarms let you know when it's time for your next dose. You can buy special medication alarms or use the alarms you've already got on your watch or cellular phone.
  • Calendars can be used to help you keep track of your doses and remind you to take your next dose.
  • Electronic caps fit on your medication container and record the time when the vial was last opened. This can be helpful if you forget whether you took your last dose.

Concerned about side effects, cost, or whether you really need the medication? Talk to your doctor or pharmacist. They can listen to your concerns and help you decide whether the medication is for you. If not, they can suggest other options.

Try not to feel discouraged if the first tip you try doesn't work. You may find that a combination of these tips works best. It may take a while to find the way that works best for you. But by trying these tips, you've taken an important step towards improving your health!