6 Things you Don't know about Taking Medication


Maybe you take one or two medications regularly, or only an occasional pill when sick, but women 30-65 take the most prescription medications, and yet there's lot of things we don't know about our taking medicine.1

Surprisingly, in any given week, four out of five U.S. adults will use prescription medicines, over-the-counter drugs, or dietary and herbal supplements. Nearly one-third of adults take five or more different medications.2 Worse, during 2002–2012, almost 700,000 children under six experienced out-of-hospital medication errors.3

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Preventing Medication Errors, estimates that 1.5 million preventable adverse drug events occur each year in the United States.4

Seems what you don’t know about taking your medicine can hurt you.

"It’s important to understand what drugs you're taking or giving to someone else," says Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, author of the newly released Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Medications & How to Take Them Safely.

Below are answers to a few questions you may have about taking medicine:

1. Is it OK to cut or chew pills, or break open capsules?

Because some capsules have special coatings that dissolve when the medicine gets to a certain point in the body, they may not work or be as effective if you open, cut, or chew them. Plus, some drugs have a time released coating where the outer portion of the pill dissolves first and the inner portion is set to release in the gut slowly over time. If it's not clearly stated on your drug's directions, ask the pharmacist if cutting or breaking open the capsule is acceptable.^5

2. Is it a must to take medicines with food, water or on an empty stomach per the instructions?

"Some medicines are hard on the stomach," says Durning. Taking with food helps buffer that so you don’t develop an upset stomach or heartburn. Taking your drug with water also helps push the medicine down all the way to the stomach more quickly. In fact, some meds say to drink with a full glass of water. Don't skip this step and only take a sip. A full glass may help prevent the pill from becoming lodged in the esophagus and creating an uncomfortable burning sensation. "Alternatively," says Durning, "Some medicines need the acid in an empty stomach to help dissolve them properly." Follow the directions on your prescription label exactly.^6

3. Why do you need to clean pill crushers or cutters?

If it’s acceptable to cut or crush your pills, always clean your pill crusher device after each dose. Tiny fragments of the medication can become lodged in the device, increasing the amount of medicine in subsequent doses. Also, if you share a crusher with another family member, make sure to clean the device so there’s no way you're taking traces of someone else’s medications or them yours.^7

4. What can you do if you have trouble swallowing pills?

Swallowing pills can be a challenge for those who find it difficult. According to the Harvard Health Letter, it causes one in three people to gag, vomit, or choke.^8 One study found the pop bottle method may help. Fill a plastic water or soda bottle with water. Place the pill on your tongue and close your lips around the bottle opening. Take a drink, while keeping your lips around the bottle. Use a sucking motion to swallow the water and pill.^9 Durning says practice with Tic Tacs; the small candies make the perfect fake pill to figure out the method of swallowing pills that works best for you. "Try drinking from a straw; some people find that the suction helps them swallow the pill," says Durning. You can also take a deep breath, then a sip of a water before swallowing. Don’t stretch your neck backwards. Instead do the opposite, bend forward and look down before swallowing to relax neck muscles. Try out capsules vs. tablets. Some people can swallow one more easily. Finally, ask about liquid options or if the pill can be crushed and placed in a spoonful of peanut butter or ice cream.^10

5. Does the angle of the injection make a difference?

For most people who give themselves injections, holding the needle at a 90 degree angle is preferable, and what they were taught by their health provider. "However, for people who are thin or have less subcutaneous fat, especially in the upper arm, a sharper angle, may work better," says Durning. Ask your health provider if say, a 45-90 degree angle might work best for your body type.^11

6. Is a generic medicine as good as the name brand?

As a rule, all drugs made with the same medicinal ingredients are exactly alike. But each manufacturer may use different non-medicinal ingredients such as fillers and binders that give the drug its color or taste. "For this reason, not all generics are 100 percent alike. They should all work the same way and be as effective as each other. And most often they are," says Durning. But sometimes these non-medicinal ingredients may slightly change how the drug works or it may cause a different side effect. However, the FDA requires generic drugs to have the same quality and performance as brand name drugs.^12 If you’ve switched from a name brand to a generic—or vice versa--talk to your doctor about any differences in the medicine's effectiveness you may experience.^13

Understanding how your medicine works and why you should take it exactly as prescribed helps to reduce risks associated with taking medicine.

Sources not cited or linked to above:

^1, ^7  http://www.justtherightdose.com/ (opens in new window)

^2 Institute of Medicine. Preventing Medication Errors: Quality Chasm Series. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2007. http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11623 (opens in new window)

^3 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/5/867.abstract?sid=231f2fd2-6a95-4eef-9cfc-0176457b2a03 (opens in new window)

^4 http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2006/Preventing-Medication-Errors-Quality-Chasm-Series/medicationerrorsfactsheet.pdf (opens in new window)

^5, ^6, ^10, ^11, ^13 Phone Interview with Marijke Durning, RN 2/3/15

^8 http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/two-tricks-make-easier-swallow-pills-201411137515 (opens in new window)

^9 http://annfammed.org/content/12/6/550.full (opens in new window)

^12http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/understandinggenericdrugs/ucm167991.htm (opens in new window)

This material is intended for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor.

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