The Medical Minute: Know your medications

November 03, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

Prescription medications have had a major impact on our health from treatment of infections to cancer. Ulcers that once were treated with surgery now are cured with a simple combination of antibiotics and acid suppressants. Heart disease, lung conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression effectively are managed with medications. Even conception can be inhibited or helped with medicine.

But with so many new and effective medications comes greater responsibility on the part of the consumer. It is important that patients ask their doctor what to expect with any new prescription. When a doctor prescribes a medication, the patient should understand what it is, how long to take it and what possible side effects might occur.

For some people, even if they ask all the right questions, remembering all the details about their medications can be hard. That's why pharmacists routinely include printed information listing the conditions for which the medication is commonly prescribed, how to take it, some possible side effects, what to do if a dose is missed and what problems should prompt a call to the doctor. Lists of side effects can be scary, but most people do not experience any. The list includes side effects that have ever happened to anyone taking the drug. A few people have mild side effects that go away. Serious side effects are very rare.

Pharmacists can help patients better understand their medications, so patients should take advantage of their expertise regarding prescription drugs. But remember, talking to a pharmacist is not the same as talking to the patient's doctor. Specific concerns about a patient's health always should be addressed to the patient's doctor, who has the benefit of knowing medical history and a better understanding through examinations.

If patients see more than one doctor on a regular basis, keep in mind that one physician may not have current information on what another has prescribed. Having prescriptions filled by the same pharmacy allows the pharmacist to review all medications for possible interactions and to update doctors.

Prescription plans may be restrict what can be prescribed. In those cases, the pharmacist may contact the doctor to work out an acceptable alternative. In many cases a safe generic version of the medication can be substituted.

The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers of generic drugs to show that their version is close to the same potency as the original. The effect will be identical most of the time. Patients must depend on their pharmacists to obtain generic medications from high-quality distributors. If a generic substitution is offered, a patient should ask the pharmacist if the supplier is reputable. If the medication is for long-term use, the patient should find out if the pharmacist plans to stay with the same distributor.

Sometimes the price is the same for all strengths of a particular pill. Patients may be able to save money by buying a higher strength pill and splitting it, if appropriate. Pharmacists can help determine which medications can be split safely.

Everyone should know the names of their medications and the condition for which they were prescribed. Referring to medications as "my blue heart pill" or "my allergy medication" can prove dangerous. Colors of pills can vary, especially with generics, and medication that is prescribed for the heart also may be designed to treat blood pressure or improve kidney function.

Check the directions on the label when filling a prescription to be certain it matches up with what the doctor or pharmacist told the patient. Check the name and dosage strength. If it has changed ask the doctor or pharmacist to confirm the prescription.

Family and friends should NEVER share medication. Just because they have similar symptoms, or even the same diagnosis, does not mean the medication will work for them. The dosage or reason for use may be different. Others may also have different health issues or drug interactions and could be unintentionally harmed by another's medication.

With medical knowledge increasing daily, it is likely that the use of medications will increase. By working with doctors and pharmacists, patients can be certain that medications are safe, effective and economical for continued health.

For more information, visit The American Academy of Family Physicians Web site at

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Last Updated March 19, 2009