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Prescription for success: Ask your pharmacist

Here's a list of questions that you should pose before taking your medications home.

November 30, 2009|By Karen Ravn

You're tired, hungry, cranky, and you've been waiting in line forever. Now your pharmacist is offering to discuss your new prescription -- the last thing on earth you want to do.

Do it anyway.

The warnings and descriptions on the obligatory information sheet are meant only for a general audience. Your pharmacist can offer pertinent details -- and emphasize the aspects most important for you.

So don't go home without getting answers to these questions:

What is the medication for?

In other words, make sure you get what you think you're getting. Mistakes happen. If the medication the pharmacist prepares for you is a fertility drug and what you wanted were birth control pills, this is a prime time to find out.

What is the name of the medication?

Physicians don't always tell patients the name of the drug they're prescribing, and patients don't always remember when they do. It's not enough to know you're taking "these big fat horrible-tasting pink things" twice a day. Your dentist, your insurance agent, the on-duty physician in an ER -- all might need the actual name of your medication. You should know it.

How should you take the medication?

Some medications should be taken with food. Some should be taken only when you're standing up. Some (especially those that are enteric-coated or designed for controlled release) can be harmful -- even fatal -- if they're crushed. Only if you know the best way to take your medication can you hope to have the best results.

When should you take the medication?

Some drugs should be taken in the morning. Some should be taken at bedtime. And with some, precise timing is more crucial than with others. For example, if you're supposed to take a pill twice a day, it would probably be OK to take it at 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. But that schedule wouldn't be OK if you're supposed to take a pill every 12 hours.

What is your medication supposed to do -- and how soon is it supposed to do it?

If you're coughing and sneezing and feeling achy all over, should you expect the medication to stop all this bad stuff or just some of it? If your medication is supposed to make your migraine go away, should you expect the pain to ease in five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Unless you know how -- and how fast -- your medication is supposed to act, you have no way to know if it's working.

What should you do if you miss a dose?

In general, it depends on how much you miss it by, says Jeff Goad, associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy. If you're supposed to take a dose every eight hours and you remember half an hour late, it's probably OK to take it right away and then resume your regular schedule with the next dose. On the other hand, if you don't remember until half an hour before you're due to take the next dose, you shouldn't try to make up for the dose you missed. But medications vary, and it's best to find out about your own specifically.

Should you keep taking the medication until it's all gone or just until your symptoms go away?

It's important to keep taking some medications, especially antibiotics, until you've used them all up, even if you feel better before that. You can take other medications only "as needed" -- i.e., only when you're experiencing the problem they're supposed to treat. Other medications are for chronic conditions and are meant to be taken over the long term, perhaps for life.

Is it safe to stop taking the medication whenever you want?

If your medication is intended to make your broken arm hurt less and you stop taking it, your arm will probably hurt more -- but probably nothing worse than that will happen. If your medication is an antibiotic intended to cure a bacterial infection and you stop taking it before you finish the full course, some bacteria will probably survive and multiply and may make you sick again. Plus you may be contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance -- since the bacteria that did survive (and multiply) will be the ones most resistant to the antibiotic.

It may be even less wise to stop taking other medications abruptly on your own. If you suddenly stop taking a medication meant to lower your blood pressure, for example, your blood pressure could spike dangerously.

What side effects should you watch out for?

In addition to the effects you want your medications to have -- making your blood pressure go down or your energy level go up -- drugs may have effects you'd rather they didn't, such as making you fall asleep in a meeting with your boss. Some side effects are more common than others, and some are more serious. You need to know which are which, how you can avoid them (if possible) and what you can and should do about them if they occur. For example, the standard recommendation for medications that make you drowsy is to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery.

What interactions should you watch out for?

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