Health Resources

Medicine safety

While prescription (and even over-the-counter) medications can deliver relief and even cures for ailing patients, they can also present potential risks — especially when taken without the guidance of a medical professional. Among these risks, the active ingredients in certain medications can cause unwanted side effects, allergic reactions, or harmful interactions with other pharmaceuticals. Sometimes, taking them can even lead to adverse interactions with the foods or drinks (including alcohol in particular) a patient consumes.

For these reasons and more, it’s important for patients to discuss medications with a doctor, pharmacist, or both before taking them. One way for patients to ensure that proper considerations are taken before they consume a medicine is to fill out a medical history form, which provides a doctor with the important background information he or she needs to know before writing a prescription.

Further, it’s important for patients to educate themselves on the medications they’re being described (and even over-the-counter medications) and what they do. Among the questions that the Food and Drug Administration suggests that patients ask their physicians regarding any medicines they may be taking:

  • What exactly does this medication do exactly?
  • When is/are the best time(s) of day for taking this medicine?
  • Should I avoid certain foods or activities when taking this medicine?
  • Is it OK to take this medication on an empty stomach, or should I always take it with (or after) meals?
  • Are there any potential concerns about this medicine interacting with other medications or supplements that I am taking?
  • Are there any side effects I should be aware of/look out for?

Additional medicine-safety tips

Of course, once a medication has been prescribed by a physician, it’s important that patients use them as directed, keep them out of the reach of children, dispose of them properly and otherwise adhere to best practices from a safety standpoint. For more guidance on a range of topics related to medicine safety, consult the resources found below.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends the following best practices for patients taking prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications:

  • Before taking any medication, take time to read the label carefully and follow the instructions given there.
  • Take prescribed medications exactly as instructed by your physician or pharmacist.
  • Ensure that, if you have multiple physicians, each of them is aware of all of the medications you’re taking.
  • If you’re taking multiple types of medicine, ask your doctor to assist you with making an intake schedule so that you know exactly what days/times to take your medications.
  • As much as possible, try to use the same pharmacy for filling all of your prescriptions. That way, the pharmacist can become familiar with you and help you keep track of the various medications you’re taking.
  • For additional help keeping track of the medication(s) you’re taking and when to take it/them, share the information with a loved one or friend who is willing to assist.
  • Never take any over-the-counter medications while you’re on prescription medications without first consulting your doctor.
  • When given a prescription that includes a course of medication intake, be sure to take the medicine(s) for the full duration and dosage advised by your physician. Don’t quit taking your medicine, and don’t alter the dosage or change your intake timing/frequency without first consulting your doctor.
  • Never take another person’s medications.
  • Always check that the expiration date has not passed before taking medication, and properly dispose of any expired medicine.

Other notes to consider for patients taking prescription and OTC medications include:

  • Pill-splitting — the practice of cutting pills into smaller segments before taking them, which is often in an effort to save money when higher dosages of a medication sell for the same price as the prescribed dosage — can present significant dangers, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP). In addition to the likelihood of leading to dosage inaccuracies, pill splitting is discouraged because not all medications are safe to take after they’ve been cut into portions. For example, some pills are coated to protect the stomach or to make them longer-acting — and cutting them can negate these intended effects. The ISMP recommends consulting your doctor before considering any pill-splitting activity, and if he or she says the medication is OK to split, to consider having the pharmacist cut the pills.
  • Carefully follow your doctor’s and/or pharmacist’s advice regarding how to best store your medications. Most medicines should be kept in a cool, dry place out of the reach of children, and some medicines require refrigeration. (However, medications that do not require refrigeration should not be kept in the refrigerator.)
  • When taking any medication, be sure to report any unusual or unexpected symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible. Further, speak with your physician before discontinuing the use of any medication.
  • In the case of any missed doses, do not assume that you can simply take an extra dose when your medication is next due to make up for the missed medicine — speak with your doctor about what to do.

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, medications are the leading cause of poisoning incidents among children — and on average, a child under 6 years old is seen in the emergency room for medicine poisoning once every 10 minutes. Among the organization’s tips for avoiding medicine-poisoning mishaps among children:

  • Store medicine — even those you take on a daily basis — out of children’s reach and sight.
  • Consider the places where kids often get into medicine, such as in purses or on nightstands, and ensure that these are kept out of children’s reach/sight too. Any bags or briefcases containing medicine should also be stored in places that are out of reach.
  • Keep in mind that some products you may not think of as medicine, such as diaper creams, vitamins, and ear drops, can also be harmful if ingested (or over-ingested) and should also be kept out of kids’ reach and sight.
  • Be especially careful to ensure safety when giving medicine to children. Use a proper dosing device (rather than a kitchen spoon) when giving liquid medications to kids, and ensure that any caregivers are given clear instructions on medication dosages and timing for children.
  • Have the Poison Help line’s number, 800-222-1222, saved in your phone and posted in a visible spot in your residence so that it’s easily accessible if it’s ever needed. The hotline provides quick, 24/7 access to knowledgeable specialists who can provide expert medical advice regarding any potential poisoning.
  • Ensure that family members, babysitters, and friends — especially any who may be tasked with caring for your kids — are familiar with these medicine-safety tips.

Once prescription and OTC medicines have expired, it’s important to dispose of them properly — so that they do not pose a risk of being misused/abused, being inadvertently taken, poisoning a child or pet, or harming the environment. Some of the leading recommended options for safely disposing of expired medications include:

  • Drug take-back events, which many city and county governments hold on regular occasions (Call your local government helpline to find out if a drug take-back program or event is available in your community.)
  • Immediately flushing items on the FDA’s flush list down the toilet
  • For items not found on the FDA flush list:
    • mixing the medication with an unpleasant substance such as used coffee grounds, cat litter, or dirt
    • putting the mixture into a sealable plastic bag or disposable container with a lid
    • scratching out or otherwise concealing any personal and RX information on empty medication bottles/containers
    • throwing the drug mixture and empty medication containers in the trash
    • In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice’s website provides a helpful resource for finding safe places to dispose of expired medications. When a visitor to the website provides his or her location details and performs a search, the tool will identify nearby safe-disposal sites.

When patients choose to use OTC medications, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends the following best practices:

  • Carefully review the labels of all options available, and look for a medicine that treats only the symptoms that are presenting in the patient. Don’t, for example, choose a medicine that treats a sore throat and cough if only a cough is present — seek out an option that treats only the specific existing symptoms.
  • Pay close attention to the proper dosage recommendations and follow them precisely.
  • Be aware of the medication’s possible side effects, as well as what food and other medicines should be avoided when the chosen medication is taken.
  • Be on the lookout for any conditions that the medication may exacerbate, such as high blood pressure or respiratory issues, and avoid medications that negatively impact any conditions the patient may have.
  • Reach out to your physician or pharmacist with any questions or concerns.

With the proliferation of online marketplaces for prescription medications, buyers should be especially wary of potential scams and disreputable vendors. The FDA recommends taking the following steps when purchasing medications online:

  • Avoid buying from vendors offering to provide a prescription medication without a prescription or exam, or that sell non-FDA-approved drugs.
  • Steer clear of buying from sites that don’t offer some form of access to a registered pharmacist to answer any consumer or patient queries.
  • Don’t do business with sites that fail to provide a U.S. phone number and contact address to contact with any order problems, or that provide no details about who you’re dealing with.
  • Avoid purchasing from foreign websites selling medications, as it is against the law to import drugs from such out-of-country businesses, and little help is available to you if the site does not fulfill its obligations after you make a purchase.
  • Be wary of sites offering solutions that lack the support of proper scientific research or that make conspiracy-driven claims, such as saying that the medical establishment, the government, or the scientific community is conspiring to prevent access to a legitimate product.
  • Be especially skeptical of sites making fantastical promises, such as claiming to provide quick cure-alls for a long list of conditions or “miracle cures” for serious disorders. Show similar skepticism for sites purporting to demonstrate “amazing” results via insufficiently documented case histories.