Health Encyclopedia

Be Smart About Taking Medications

Prescription medications have become like new cars and breakfast cereals. Many of them are being marketed directly to the public through ads on television and in magazines. Some medications get so much free publicity they don't need to be advertised.

Smart consumers should use advertisements as motivation to become more educated about their own illnesses and choices for treatment. Often, when people view or read medication advertisements there are many unanswered questions. You should always check with your health care providers to get answers to those questions. Also, find out if the advertised medication is right for you or just different than what you are already taking.

Medications have the power to fight disease and improve quality of life. Many also have serious side effects. Deciding whether the benefits are better than the risks depends on several factors:

  • Your age. Your body uses many medications in different ways as you get older.

  • Your lifestyle. For example, you may need to avoid drugs that make you sleepy if you operate machinery, and avoid other drugs if you smoke.

  • Diseases or conditions you may have. A medication that helps one condition may make another one worse.

  • Pregnancy or possible pregnancy. Pregnancy needs careful prescribing and decision-making between the woman and her health care provider.

  • Possible drug and food interactions. The drug's effect may be made stronger or weaker by other medications, supplements you take, or foods you eat.

Knowing as much as you can about the medications you take, or think you should take, is especially important if you are a member of a consumer-directed health plan like a medical savings account. These plans place more responsibility for health care decisions on your shoulders.

Do your homework

When deciding whether a medication is right for you, be aware that any medicine can have side effects. Magazine and newspaper ads for medications contain summaries of prescription information. These include warnings of possible interactions and side effects. TV commercials usually provide toll-free numbers you can call for information or direct you to a print ad. If the medication is sold over-the-counter instead of by prescription, the summary is provided inside the package.

In-depth information about prescription drugs can be found in the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference). This huge reference is updated every year and is available at larger bookstores, public libraries, and on the Internet. It has the information in the package insert sent with the medication to the pharmacist. Reading and understanding this information may be difficult for the average person.

Pharmacists are a valuable resource for information about your medications. Pharmacists can translate the difficult drug information into terms you can understand.

Keep an open mind

If you believe you could benefit from a certain medication that you have heard or read about, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist. Either one may know if your current medication is the best for you or may know of another medication that is better or less expensive to treat your condition or symptoms.

Many conditions need you to make changes in your lifestyle in addition to, or instead of, taking a medicine. For example, you may have to change your diet to try to lower your cholesterol before a drug that lowers cholesterol is prescribed.

Make sure your insurance plan covers the drug. If it doesn't, you may be able to get the medication by paying part or all of the cost. Or, another drug the plan covers may be a good substitute.

Get informed

If your health care provider prescribes a medication, find out what you need to do to get the best results. Ask your health care provider what benefits you can expect from the drug. Understand when and how you should take it. Find out about possible side effects and what you should do about them. Many pharmacists provide computer printouts with general information about drugs. This includes when and how often to take them, whether to take them on a full or empty stomach, and other important information.

Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist as soon as possible if you're not getting the results you expect or are having any type of unexpected side effects. Keep taking the medication, though, until you can talk to your health care provider and follow his or her advice about stopping or changing your medications. Even if a new medication is prescribed, you have to take it in order to know if it will work or have different side effects than the medication you took before.

If you see more than 1 health care provider (like a family doctor and a heart specialist) and a new medication is prescribed, be certain to let your other health care provider know. If possible, it is also best to fill all of your prescription medications at 1 pharmacy.   

When it comes to your health, be an educated and responsible patient and consumer.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd