Why you need to take your medications as prescribed — and how to stay on track

Your medications are essential to staying healthy

Medications help manage health conditions and diseases, improve quality of life and may even be lifesaving. But millions of people don't take their medications as prescribed by their healthcare provider. Not taking medications as prescribed can lead to health problems and hospitalization. It can even be life-threatening.

Medication mistakes and problems can occur. Work with your provider to choose a medication plan that works best for you, your lifestyle and your health goals. Having a medication plan is good for your health: It reduces the chances that you'll miss a dose or take an incorrect dose.

What does it mean to take medications "as prescribed?"

Every medication, whether over the counter or prescription, has instructions for recommended use. For example, you might need to take it at specific times each day, not exceed certain amounts or take it with or without food.

When you are prescribed medicine, your provider and pharmacist will give you instructions on when and how to take it. Taking your medicine as prescribed is important for controlling chronic conditions, treating temporary conditions and improving your overall health and well-being.

"As prescribed" means you take your medicine:

  • In the right way
  • At the right dose
  • At the right time
  • At the right frequency

Not taking medications as prescribed could mean you:

  • Miss or skip one or more doses
  • Stop a medication without discussing it with your provider
  • Take the wrong dose (less or more than prescribed)
  • Take medicine at the wrong time 
  • Take medicine with things that interact negatively with it, such as other medications, alcohol, certain foods or herbal supplements

Why people don't take medications as prescribed — and what to do

Many factors can interfere with you taking medications as prescribed. Know what these barriers are and how you can avoid them. 

I forget to take my medicine

It can be hard to remember medications, especially if you take more than one. Try these strategies to remind yourself:

  • Set a schedule: If you can, take your medications at the same time every day, such as first thing in the morning or right before bed. Or take them when you do something each day, such as brushing your teeth.
  • Use a pill container: Get a weekly medication container with labels for each dose. Refill the container at the same time each week, such as on Sunday morning.
  • Get timer caps: Purchase bottle caps with a built-in alarm, so you get an alert when it's time to take your medication.
  • Make them visible: Keep your medicines in a place where you'll notice them, such as next to your toothbrush. Always keep them out of reach of children and pets.
  • Use an app: Many smart device health apps feature medication alarms and reminders.
  • Remember to refill: When you pick up your medication, add a refill reminder on your smart device or other calendar. Set the reminder for several days before you run out of medicine. You can also ask your pharmacy if they have an auto-refill reminder program.
  • Mail order/home delivery: Many insurance companies have mail-order or home delivery options that will mail medications directly to your home. Ask your insurance company for more information. 

I don't understand the directions

Each medication you take has instructions from your provider. Make sure you understand the directions when you get a new medication. Know when, how and why you take it.

It might be helpful to take notes during your provider visit. Don't be embarrassed or afraid to ask questions. Questions are an important part of shared decision making between you and your provider. If you forget or have questions later, call your provider or pharmacist and ask them to explain the directions to you.

If your provider changes the dosage over the phone or in person, ask them to either give you a new prescription or send a new prescription to the pharmacy.

I don't think the medicine is helping

Many people stop taking their prescribed medicine when they feel better. They may think they don't need the medicine anymore. Or they might feel like the medicine isn't doing anything.

But many medicines work behind the scenes to keep you healthy. For example, medicines such as statins and cholesterol-lowering medications might not make you feel any different after taking them. But they're helping lower your risk of serious conditions, including heart attack and stroke.

If you stop taking medications without talking with your provider, you could be putting your health at risk. Talk to your provider if you think your medicine isn't working or you don't know why you are taking it.

The side effects are bothering me

Many medicines can have side effects, which are unwanted or unintended symptoms. For instance, some allergy medicines can make you drowsy. Some pain relievers can upset your stomach.

If you have bothersome side effects when you take a medication, contact your provider. Your provider may:

  • Give you a different medication
  • Change your dose
  • Adjust the timing of your dose
  • Work with you to manage the side effects

If you're having a severe reaction, such as hives or trouble breathing, stop taking the medication and seek immediate medical care. If your side effects are not serious, talk with your provider before you stop taking any medications.

My medications are too expensive

Tell your provider if paying for your prescriptions is a problem. In some cases, your provider can prescribe a lower-cost alternative or a generic medication. Generic drugs use the same active ingredients and work the same way in the body as brand-name medications, but they can cost up to 80% less.

Other ways to save money on medications:

  • Call pharmacies: Call different pharmacies and ask for the price of the medication. Have the name of the drug handy and speak to the pharmacist. Be sure to tell them about any prescription drug coverage you have through your insurance company.
  • Order online: Research legitimate mail-order and online pharmacies. But only purchase medicines from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Don't buy medicines from other countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has additional tips on ordering your medicines online.
  • Ask for discounts: Ask your provider or pharmacist about manufacturer drug coupons or prescription discount cards.
  • Medicare Extra Help: If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan, you may qualify for Medicare Extra Help to assist with medication costs.

It's OK to ask about medications

Your medications are important — and taking them as prescribed is a key part of staying healthy. When you have questions or concerns about your medications, speak up. Your provider or pharmacist can answer your questions and help you manage your health.

Sources: Food and Drug Administration, Medline Plus

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