Managing Your Medications: What You Need to Know

When it comes to your prescriptions, keep medical management safe and effective

A prescription medicine bottle spills pills on a counter.

by John Harrington, MD

How many medications do you take in a typical day? We’re not just talking prescriptions here. Be sure to count aspirin, allergy pills, vitamins and supplements — even herbs.

If the number is higher than you thought, you’re not alone. Many adults use at least one prescription medication daily, and those who have chronic conditions such as heart disease or hypertension may use several.

Generally, the older you are, the more medications you take. In fact, the average American over age 65 may use up to seven prescription drugs a day.

There’s no question that having safe, effective treatments for a wide range of ailments is a good thing. However, how and when you take them is vitally important.

Food and alcohol can affect how well your medications work. Certain medications may interact with one another, with results ranging from headaches and other unpleasant side effects to significant changes in effectiveness. In some cases, drug interactions can lead to serious complications.

Stay safe by knowing your medical prescriptions

How do you maximize effectiveness and minimize interactions?

The first step is to check with your doctor or pharmacist every time you start a new medication (or stop taking an old one), especially if you see more than one physician. This applies to both prescriptions and over-the-counter products, including vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies.

Most pharmacies have a drug-interaction database that alerts them to potential problems. If interaction is an issue, your pharmacist and doctor can work together to determine the best approach.

Moreover, it’s a good idea to review all of your medications with your doctor every year. Changes in age, weight or health can affect the amount of medication that’s right for you, and regular reviews can ensure that you’re taking the right dosage.

Ask for written instructions about when and how you should take each medication — and follow them. Also, ask if there are side effects you should be aware of, and if any warrant a call to your doctor.

Be sure to take the correct drugs, at the correct time of day, with (or without) the correct foods or drinks. Some medications are better absorbed with a meal, while others work best on an empty stomach.

Plus, specific foods can interact with specific drugs. Dairy products, for example, may decrease the effectiveness of certain antibiotics. Grapefruit juice, on the other hand, can actually increase the amount of some blood pressure or cholesterol medications, releasing too much of the medication into your system — and in this case, more is not better.

Handling prescriptions during your busy day

At times, it may feel like a juggling act. You take the blue pill in the morning on an empty stomach, the two round yellow pills with breakfast — but not with grapefruit juice — and the white pill with dinner and at least two hours before the other blue pill.

Fortunately, a little planning can go a long way. First, make a schedule for yourself. On an index card, write down the name of each medication and what time you need to take it. Also include any relevant information, such as avoiding dairy products for an hour before or after you take it.

Start with the first medication you take and continue in chronological order, so you can easily follow your schedule throughout the day. Use the card to help you remember when and how to take your medications.

To avoid mixing up your medications, color-code the containers with permanent markers or stickers that let you tell them apart at a glance. To make it even easier, pick up a medication container at your drugstore. These handy, inexpensive containers divide your pills into several compartments to help you remember to take them at the right times. You’ll know right away if you miss a dose, because the pills you forgot to take will still be in the container.

Finally, err on the side of caution. If you miss a dose or mix up your pills, call your doctor or pharmacist for advice. If you start to feel sick or experience unexpected side effects such as nausea, dizziness or severe fatigue, let your doctor know right away.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by John Harrington, MD, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.