Prescription or Over the Counter: Follow Directions to Stay Safe

Prescription or Over the Counter: Follow Directions to Stay Safe

Prescription or Over the Counter: Follow Directions to Stay Safe

Medicine can help your health in many ways. From over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to prescription medicines that treat life-threatening conditions, medicine can have a major positive impact. But only if it’s taken — and taken correctly.

Over a million Americans wind up in the emergency room each year due to adverse drug events — harm resulting from use or misuse of medicine.

Medicine is not taken as prescribed half the time, and prescriptions are often never even filled.

Some of the reasons for that include concerns about cost and side effects, and even just forgetfulness. But it’s often because people don’t understand how to take medicine correctly or why it’s important.

It can be challenging to take medicine correctly, especially if you take more than one. But it’s important to take the time to understand why you’re taking a drug and how to do it right. It’s worth it to stay safe and get the positive results you need.

Here are some things to keep in mind about medicine and tips for taking it correctly.

Take as Directed

It’s important to continue taking your medicine as instructed. For example, take all of your antibiotic. If you don’t, the drug might not kill the bacteria causing your infection.

Time of Day

When you take a drug may make a difference. Some drugs can make you sleepy or keep you awake. Some drugs are taken more than once a day with a certain amount of time between doses, so it’s important to take each dose at the right time. Taking your medicine at the same time every day can also help you remember to take your medicine.

How Far Apart

Drugs last different lengths of time in the body. Some break down and wear off quickly. Others can last a full day or longer. Taking your drug as directed ensures that you get the full benefit of the drug. It also helps prevent an accidental overdose. If you forget a dose, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you should take it right away or wait for the next dose.

With or Without Food (or Certain Foods)

If your doctor tells you to take a drug with food, it may be to avoid an upset stomach. If it should be taken on an empty stomach, the drug may have a harder time working if it is competing with your last snack or meal. And some drugs must not be taken with certain foods because the food’s ingredients could impact the drug's effectiveness.

With or Without Liquids

Most people take pills with a drink to wash them down. Water is the safest choice. Some drugs should be taken with a lot of water to help them do their best work. Other drugs should not be taken with certain types of drinks, such as juices or dairy.

With or Without Other Drugs (Including OTC)

Watch for interactions. Some drugs can cancel each other out or cause problems if they are taken too close together, or together at all. Some drugs are less effective if taken with other drugs that affect digestion (antacids).

How Much

Getting the right dose is important. That can be easier if you take a medicine in pill form than if you must take liquid medicine that has to be measured. The exact amount you take matters. Too little may not work. Too much can be toxic. Pharmacists often provide a measuring cup or spoon with prescriptions.

You can accidentally take too much if you take drugs in combination with each other. But sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what drug you’re taking by just looking at the brand name. For example, taking too much of an acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Tylenol is acetaminophen. And many other OTC products also contain acetaminophen, including medicines for cough, cold and flu. Be sure to check the ingredients of OTC drugs to make sure you aren’t getting too much of one drug.

Alcohol and Meds Don’t Mix

Alcohol and prescription drugs can be a dangerous combination. And many OTC drugs can also be dangerous when taken with alcohol.

The way alcohol interacts with medicine depends on the drug. Some combinations can be unsafe — others can be deadly. Alcohol often boosts drug side effects. You may feel drowsy or dizzy. It can also make drugs less effective.

In some cases, you can avoid problems by spacing out your pills and alcoholic drinks. But people on some medicines should skip alcohol altogether. Read labels with care. Talk with your doctor about any risks. If you’re taking any kind of medicine, don’t drink alcohol unless your doctor says it’s safe.

Ask for Help

If you're struggling with taking your medicine as directed for any reason, ask for help. If cost is a concern, your doctor or pharmacist may know of ways to help you pay for prescriptions. If side effects are the issue, a different drug may be available. They can also offer advice to better manage how you’re taking your medicine.

Discard Them Correctly

If you have unneeded or expired medications, get rid of them. But do it the right way. For many drugs, just throwing them in the trash or flushing them down the toilet is not a good choice. There are different options for discarding your medicine safely. And most areas have local drop off locations. The FDA can help you find the best option. 

Sources: Medication Safety and Your Health, leaving site icon  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2024; Drug Disposal: Take Back Locations, leaving site icon  U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2022; OTC Medicines: Know Your Risks and Reduce Them, leaving site icon  American Academy of Family Physicians, 2022; Drug and Alcohol Interactions - What to Avoid, leaving site icon, 2024; 5 Medication Safety Tips for Older Adults, leaving site icon U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2024; 8 reasons patients don’t take their medications, leaving site icon American Medical Association, 2023

Originally published 3/2/2021; Reviewed 2022, 2023, 2024