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Use Medicines Safely

doctor showing pill instructions to patient

The Basics

Medicines can help you feel better and get well. But if you don’t follow the directions, medicines can hurt you.

You can lower your chances of side effects (unwanted or unexpected effects) from medicines by following directions carefully. Side effects may be mild, like an upset stomach. Other side effects can be more serious, like damage to your liver.

When you follow the directions on the medicine’s label or from your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse, you get the best results.

There are simple steps you can take to avoid problems.

  • Follow the directions carefully.
  • If you don’t understand the directions, ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist to explain them to you.
  • Keep a list of all your medicines.
  • Tell your doctor about all the medicines, vitamins, minerals, and herbs you use.
  • Put your medicines in a cool, dry place where children and pets can’t get to them.

There are different types of medicine.
The 2 main types of medicine are prescription and over-the-counter.

Prescription medicines are medicines you can get only with a prescription (or order) from your doctor. You get this medicine at a pharmacy.

  • Prescription medicines shouldn’t be used by anyone except the person whose name is on the prescription.
  • Throw away expired (out-of-date) or unused prescription medicines. Ask your pharmacist about the safest way to throw medicines away.

Sometimes you can choose between a generic medicine and a brand name medicine. Generic and brand name medicines work the same way. Generic medicine usually costs less.

Talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or insurance company for more information about generic medicines. Learn more about generic medicines [PDF - 108 KB].

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy at a store without a prescription. All OTC medicines come with a Drug Facts label. This label can help you choose the right OTC medicine for you and your problem.

The label also gives you instructions for using the medicine safely. Even OTC medicines can cause side effects. Follow the directions on the label to lower your chances of side effects.

Some examples of OTC medicines include:

  • Cold and flu medicines
  • Pain medicines like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen
  • Allergy medicines
  • Sleep aids
  • Toothpaste with fluoride
  • Antiperspirant (found in many underarm deodorants)

Learn more about what’s on an OTC Drug Facts label.

Take Action!

Prevent problems and mistakes with your medicines.

Follow directions carefully.
Be sure to read the directions. Even over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can cause problems if you don’t use them correctly. Review this guide to using OTC medicines safely [PDF - 944 KB].

If you notice unpleasant changes after taking medicine, like feeling dizzy or having an upset stomach, call your doctor or nurse.

Talk to your doctor.
Before you use any new medicines, tell your doctor:

  • About other medicines you use – both prescription and OTC medicines
  • About any vitamins, minerals, or herbs you use
  • If you are allergic to any medicines
  • If you have had side effects after using any medicines
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, because some medicines may harm your baby

Keep taking prescription medicines until your doctor tells you it’s okay to stop – even if you are feeling better.

Ask questions to make sure you understand.
To use a medicine safely, you need to know:

  • What the medicine is
  • Why you are using the medicine
  • How to use the medicine the right way

Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist questions to be sure you understand how to use your medicine.

Keep track of your medicines.

  • Make a list of the medicines you use [PDF - 340 KB]. Write down how much you use and when you use each medicine.
  • Take this list with you when you go to the doctor or nurse. You may want to make a copy to give to a family member or friend.
  • Make sure to read and save any information that comes with your medicine.
  • Keep your medicine in the box or bottle it came in so you have all of the label information.
  • Pay attention to the color and shape of your pills. If they look different when you get a refill, ask your pharmacist to double-check that you have the right medicine.

Put your medicines in a safe place.
Medicines that are stored correctly last longer and work better.

  • Keep your medicines in a cool, dry place to help them work better and last longer. Medicines can break down quickly in places that are damp and warm, like some bathrooms.
  • Keep medicines away from children and pets. A locked box, cabinet, or closet is best. Call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) right away if a child uses your medicine.
  • Get rid of expired (out-of-date) medicines and medicines you no longer use. Follow these instructions to get rid of old or extra medicines safely [PDF - 308 KB].

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Content last updated on: September 27, 2012

National Health Information Center

P.O. Box 1133, Washington, DC 20013-1133