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Taking Medicines? This Guide Can Help


Taking medicines is not always as simple as swallowing a pill. It can involve many steps and decisions each day. Whether you are using a medicine yourself or helping a child or an adult, it is easy to get off track. Perhaps you:

  • Did not take all of your medicine because you started feeling better.

  • Did not have a prescription filled or refilled (and did not tell your doctor).

  • Forgot to take one or more doses a day.

  • Took more or less medicine than your doctor told you to take.

This guide can help you avoid errors like these and get the most from your medicines. It explains:

  • How to get and follow a treatment plan that is right for you.

  • What you need to do to take your medicines safely.

  • How to get help when you need it.

This guide also has tips to make it easier to talk with your health care professionals (doctor, pharmacist, nurse, and others) about your medicines.

Stay in touch with your health care professionals while taking your medicines.

Doctor ______________________
Phone _______________________

Doctor ______________________
Phone _______________________

Pharmacist __________________
Phone _______________________

Pharmacist __________________
Phone _______________________

Nurse _______________________
Phone _______________________

Get Involved

Work with your health care professionals before, during, and after taking medicines—to give and get information, and to get help if you need it.

Why should you take this active role?

1. Because using medicines in the right way is very important to your health. With proper use of medicines, you can:

  • Get the medicine's full benefits. For example, if you take too little of a medicine to lower your cholesterol level, you will not reduce your cholesterol as much as you could.

  • Avoid dangerous problems. Some people end up at a hospital emergency room because they took too much or too little of a medicine, took it the wrong way, or mixed the wrong medicines, foods, and drinks. Improper medicine use can make you worse instead of better.

  • Reduce your chances of having side effects.

2. Because decisions you make about your medicines can affect your schedule, your diet, your finances, and other parts of your daily life.

3. Because most medicine problems can be avoided or solved—if you talk with your health care professional about what is happening.

How to Get Involved

Taking an active role in medicine use is a three-step process:

1. Take part in decisions about your treatment.
2. Follow your treatment plan.
3. Watch for problems and get help in solving them.

This booklet has ideas to make each step easier.

1. Take Part in Decisions About Your Treatment

When Donna's doctor told her she had high blood pressure, Donna asked what she could do to lower it. While blood pressure control was important to her, so were other things—like not being bothered by medicine side effects when at work. Donna talked about her concerns, and she also told her doctor about the medicines she takes for her arthritis. Together, they came up with a plan Donna felt she could follow, which included a new medicine and some changes in her diet.

Talk to Your Health Professionals

Take part in your treatment decisions. Do not be afraid to ask questions and talk about your concerns. You may want to write down questions to ask at your next visit. By taking a moment to ask questions now, you may avoid problems later.

Here are some points to cover each time a new medicine is prescribed.


  • About all parts of your treatment, including diet changes, exercise, and medicines.

  • About the risks and benefits of each medicine or other treatment you might get.

  • How often you or your doctor will have to check your medicine's effects. For example, this means checking your cholesterol level if you are taking a medicine to lower it.


  • All the medicines you are already taking. This includes prescription medicines and the medicines you buy over the counter, like aspirin or laxatives. Then your doctor can avoid giving you a new medicine that may not work well with one you take now.

  • What is important to you about your medicines. You may want a medicine with the fewest side effects, or the fewest doses to take each day. You may care most about cost, or how the medicine might affect how you live or work. Or, you may want the medicine your doctor believes will work the best. Telling your doctor will help him or her select the best treatment for you.

  • If cost is a concern. There may be a generic drug or another lower cost medicine you can take.

  • If you have any medicine allergies, or if you have had troubling side effects from a medicine.

  • If you are or might become pregnant, or if you are nursing a baby.

  • Any illnesses or problems for which another doctor or health professional is treating you.

Tips: Getting Help

Do not be afraid to "bother" your doctor with your concerns and questions. You need to understand and feel comfortable with your treatment plan.

Talk to a nurse or a pharmacist. They also can help you get a treatment plan that is right for you.

Bring a friend or family member with you when you visit your doctor. Talking over your options with someone you trust can help you make better choices, especially if you are not feeling well.

2. Follow Your Treatment Plan

To be sure he understood how to take his new prescription medicine, Steve asked the doctor to explain the medical terms she used. When Steve picked up his medicine, he asked the pharmacist a question he had not thought of at the doctor's. The pharmacist answered his question and gave Steve written information about the medicine. From home, Steve called the nurse to ask about his low-fat diet, which was part of his treatment plan. Following the plan wasn't always easy, but getting help when he needed it kept Steve on track.

Talk to Your Health Professionals

To follow the treatment plan you and your doctor agree on, ask questions and tell your health professionals your needs and concerns. The doctor may start by giving you some directions for taking the medicine.

Use the list located in this document under "Questions to Ask About Your Medicine" to write down answers you receive about the medicine.

If you need more information, you can ask your doctor, pharmacist, or nurse.

Here are some points to cover.


  • The name of the medicine and what it is supposed to do.

  • How and when to take the medicine, how much to take, and for how long.

  • What food, drinks, other medicines, or activities you should avoid while taking the medicine.

  • What side effects the medicine may have, and what to do if they occur.

  • If you can get a refill, and how often.

  • About any terms or directions you do not understand.

  • What to do if you miss a dose.

  • If there is written information you can take home. Most pharmacies have information sheets on your prescription medicines. Some even offer large-print or Spanish versions.


  • Any concerns you have about using the medicine.

  • Any concerns you have about staying with other parts of your treatment.

  • If you are not taking your medicine as directed. For example, some people stop taking their medicine as soon as they feel better. Your doctor needs to know about any changes in your treatment plan. Do not let guilty feelings or embarrassment keep you from telling your doctor this important information.

Tips: Getting Help

When you pick up your medicine, ask your pharmacist any questions you might have about it. If you are in a hurry or would feel more comfortable, call the pharmacist later from home.

Try to use one pharmacy for all your medicine needs. The next time you are there, take a few minutes to fill out a "profile" form listing all the medicines you take (bring the list found under "Medicine Record List" in this document to help you). This will help your pharmacist keep track of your medicines.

Some pharmacies are open 24 hours a day. Look for any in your area, and keep their phone numbers handy, along with the number of your regular pharmacy.

Some products (often called compliance aids) can help remind you to take your doses on time and keep track of the doses you take. These aids include check-off calendars, containers with sections for daily doses, and caps that beep when it is time to take a dose. Ask your pharmacist or doctor what is available.

Friends or family members can also help you follow your treatment plan. For example, they could remind you to take a dose or double check that you did take a dose.

But remember: Your medicine was prescribed for you. Never share your prescription medicines with anyone.

3. Watch for Problems and Get Help in Solving Them

When Kathy began taking hormones at menopause, she felt bloated and had other annoying side effects. She told the nurse about them at her next clinic visit. The doctor lowered the dose of her medicine. This change helped reduce her side effects.

Talk to Your Health Professionals

Keep working with your health professionals while you are taking your medicine.


  • About the results of medical tests that show how the medicine is working. For example, if you are taking a drug for high blood pressure, what is your blood pressure reading now?

  • If medicine is still needed.


  • Any problems you are having taking your medicine.

  • About side effects or any new problems that may be related to the medicine.

  • Any new medicines that another doctor gave you, and any over-the-counter medicines that you started taking since your last doctor's visit. Before you visit your doctor, make a list of all medicines that you take, using the "Medicine Record List" in this document as a guideline, and bring it with you. Try to keep this list up to date. Telling which medicines you take is very important—especially if you have more than one doctor.

  • How you are feeling since you started taking the medicine. Do you think it is helping?

Tips: Getting Help

A yearly medicine check-up is a good way to spot hidden problems. Schedule a time with your pharmacist or doctor to look at all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines you take. They can check for duplicate medicines and proper doses. They can also advise you on medicines that are no longer needed, and tell you how to safely get rid of old medicines.

You can get help wherever you take medicines:

At work, there may be a nurse on-site. If not, keep the phone numbers of your health professionals with you.

At school, work with the school nurse to help your child take medicines on time and safely.

At home, a visiting nurse or pharmacist can help you and your family solve medicine problems.

Stay Involved

Remember, medicines can only help you if you take them the right way. Follow these important steps each time your doctor prescribes a medicine:

1. Take part in decisions about your treatment.
2. Follow your treatment plan.
3. Watch for problems, and get help in solving them.

Medicine Record List

Write down each medicine you take, the reason you take it, and how you take it. Be sure to include the following information:

Name of medicine
Reason taken
Time(s) of day

Also include any over-the-counter medicines, such as:

Diet pills
Cold medicine
Aspirin or other pain, headache, or fever medicine
Cough medicine
Allergy relief medicine
Sleeping pills
Others (include names)

Questions To Ask About Your Medicine

Take this list of questions with you the next time you go to see your doctor and write down the answers you receive to your questions.

1. What is the name of the medicine? Is this the brand or generic name?

2. What is the medicine supposed to do?

3. How and when do I take it? And for how long?

4. What foods, drinks, other medicines, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?

5. What are the possible side effects? What do I do if they occur?

6. Is there any written information available about the medicine?

For More Information

You can find many helpful books about medicines in bookstores, pharmacies, and libraries. Ask your pharmacist or librarian for suggestions.

The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) offers single, free brochures about preventing, diagnosing, and treating common health conditions. For a list of topics, including heart failure, acute pain, and smoking cessation, contact:

AHCPR Publications Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 8547
Silver Spring, MD 20907

How To Order Printed Copies of This Guide:

For 10 or fewer free copies, contact the AHCPR Publications Clearinghouse.

For larger orders (bulk discounts may apply), or for information about other publications from the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE), contact:

NCPIE Rx Guide
666 Eleventh Street, N.W., Suite 810
Washington, DC 20001-4542
Telephone: (202) 347-6711
Fax: (202) 638-0773

This guide was developed by the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR). It was funded in part through an educational grant by Ciba Pharmaceuticals. NCPIE encourages professionals and community groups to foster patient-professional communication about medicines. However, NCPIE does not supervise or endorse the activities of any group or professional. Discussion and action concerning medicines are solely the responsibility of patients and their health care professionals, and not NCPIE.

AHCPR Publication No. 96-0056
August 1996