Instructions for taking medicines differ from one medicine to another and from one person to another. Our five general guidelines for medicine use are:
1. Take only recommended medicines
Take only medicines recommended for you by a pharmacist or other health professional.
- With medicines, what’s right for one person is not necessarily right for another. Eg. people with ongoing health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure or depression need to be careful about any extra medicines they take even for something as simple as a cold or to relieve pain.
- Never take another person’s medicine.
2. Get information on any medicine you take
Get as much information as you can about any medicine you take. Make sure you know:
- What a medicine is for and how will you know if it’s working
- What to do if you forget to take dose
- How much to take and when to take it
- How long to take a medicine for. Do you take it every day or only when you have certain symptoms?
- Any special instructions on how to use medicines such as inhalers, eye drops, suppositories or ointments
- Whether to take a medicine with food or “on an empty stomach” i.e. one hour before or two hours after food
- If you can drink alcohol while taking a medicine – for a lot of medicines having a small amount of alcohol is fine while for others alcohol should be avoided completely
- Whether one medicine will interact with another medicine or with any vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements
- About possible side-effects, especially if a medicine causes drowsiness and therefore makes it dangerous to drive a car, go to work or operate machinery. Tell your pharmacist or doctor if you develop any unusual symptoms after you start a new medicine. Side-effects can occur in many ways – as a cough, skin rash, wakefulness or muscle pain.
3. Check you know the correct dose of a medicine
- Check with your pharmacist if you are unsure of a dose. Be particularly careful with children’s paracetamol as there are different strength products available and a child’s dose will change as the child grows and increases in body weight.
- Be careful not to ‘double-dose’ with a medicine. Double-dosing occurs when someone takes two different medicines and each one contains the same ingredients. Be particularly careful with pain relievers and cough/cold products. If you are taking more than one medicine check the ingredient list so you don’t inadvertently take a double-dose of the same medicine.
- Take only the recommended dose, too much can be dangerous. For some medicines there is a maximum dose you can take within 24 hours.
4. Take medicines correctly
- Use proper medicine measures. Household teaspoons are of different sizes and may not give the correct dose. This is especially important when measuring liquid medicines for children as the dose may be small and needs to be accurate. Special droppers or syringes (without needles) are available for giving medicines to babies and young children.
- Take tablets or capsules with a glass of water, preferably when sitting or standing up. This helps to make sure a medicine gets down to your stomach without getting stuck in your oesophagus.
5. Store medicines safely and correctly
- To avoid poisonings, store all medicines out of reach and out of sight and preferably locked away.
- Store all medicines in a cool dry place unless your pharmacist tells you otherwise. In summer avoid keeping medicines in your car as it can get very hot and this can make some medicines ineffective. (See the Poisoning Prevention page for more information)
- Keep medicines in their original containers so you always have the instructions and you can keep track of how long you’ve had a medicine.
- Discard medicines that are past their expiry date.
- Return old or unwanted medicines to your pharmacist for safe disposal. Do not throw out medicines in the rubbish or flush large quantities down the toilet.
Medicines and the elderly
As we get older, we often need to take multiple and complex medicines to treat chronic health problems. At the same time, the risk of side-effects becomes greater an the kidneys become less able to cope.
Taking more than one medicine means that our chances of missing a drug or taking too much is increased.
To avoid medication mishaps, you could ask your pharmacist or doctor about a blister pack or Medicopak – these will help you keep track of which medicines to take and when.
Alternatively, a home dispenser filled weekly works well too.
Ask your pharmacist if you are unsure about any aspect of a medicine.