Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(2):239-240

See related article on appropriately prescribing medications.

Medicines can be lifesavers. They can cure or control diseases. But if you use them the wrong way, they can be dangerous. Working together with your doctor can help you avoid problems. Follow the suggestions below for safe medicine use.

At Your Doctor's Office

Bring your medicine bottles to your doctor's office. You can also carry a list of the medicines you are taking. Make sure to include herbal products and over-the-counter medicines that you can buy in a grocery store or drugstore without a prescription. Know your drug allergies. Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

You should ask your doctor these questions:

  • What is the name of this medicine?

  • Why do I need to take this medicine?

  • When and how do I take it? With or without food? With other medicines?

  • How long do I have to take it?

  • Are there any side effects?

You should also think about the cost of the medicine. Let your doctor know if the cost of the medicine is an issue. Make sure your doctor knows how you will pay for your medicines. Ask for the generic or less expensive choices. Tell your doctor if you want to treat your health condition without medicines, and ask if other treatments like weight loss or exercise are options.

At the Pharmacy

Read the label. Make sure it is the right medicine and make sure you understand the instructions on the medicine before you leave the pharmacy. You should be able to read the label clearly. Ask about how to store the medicine (for example, does it need to be kept in the refrigerator?). Do not leave medicines in your car because they can get too hot or freeze. Ask the pharmacist if the medicine should be okay to take with your other medicines. If you want a different language on the label, ask the pharmacist.

At Home

It is important to take your medicines the way your doctor tells you. If you don't, you could have side effects or your health could get worse. Here are some good tips:

  • Use a pillbox.

  • Use a calendar.

  • Plan ahead if you are going to travel. Have enough medicine for your whole trip.

  • Ask your pharmacist if you can get early refills so you do not run out of your medicine.

  • Ask friends and family members for help if you need it.

Other Things That Can Help with Safe Medicine Use

If your medicine causes side effects you did not expect, or if you think you have an allergic reaction to it, call your doctor right away. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1. Be sure to throw away old medicines, and do not share your medicines with other people. Always fill and refill all your prescriptions at the same pharmacy. Keep the phone number for the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) near your phone. Use to find information about your medicines.

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