Safe use, handling, and storage of medications
Medication Safety Tips
Be an advocate for yourself. Ask questions – find out all you can about your medical conditions. If you have questions about the medications prescribed for you, ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information.
These tips also apply for anyone in your care. Don't be shy. Ask to have any instructions repeated. Ask to have the label and dosage explained to you. Examine every prescription that you pick up. If you discover a mistake, ask to have it resolved immediately. Do not take a medication or administer a medication to anyone, if you believe there may be a mistake.
Ask questions regarding a new medication. Your doctor and pharmacist can give you written patient information regarding what to expect when you take your new prescription. The following are general tips for medication safety.
When starting a new medication
- Discuss the risks and benefits of a new medication with your doctor or pharmacist. Find out what your choices are.
- Tell your doctor and pharmacist about any allergies you may have.
- Tell your doctor and pharmacist about all of the non-prescription drugs, vitamins, herbals, and other dietary supplements you are currently taking. Some may interfere with the effectiveness of your prescription drug.
- Make sure that you know your physician's name and the name of the clinic. If you cannot read the physician’s name on the prescription form, it is likely the pharmacist cannot read it either. Ask the physician to print his or her name.
When you pick up a prescription
- Ask your pharmacist to give you printed patient information on the medication prescribed for you or your child. If you do not understand the patient information, call your doctor or ask the pharmacist for clarification.
- Examine the label when you pick up a new prescription. Ask the pharmacist about anything on the label you do not understand.
- If the label includes a description of what the medication should look like, compare the description to the medication you received to ensure that they match. If you notice anything in the medication that seems different than the description on the label, talk to your pharmacist before taking the medication. In Oregon, this information is referred to as the prescription identification information, as explained in a handout (PDF) from the Oregon State Board of Pharmacy. Since state laws vary, not all prescription labels will include this information; however, many pharmacies’ policies and state laws are moving in the direction of requiring this information.
- Check the labels or ask your pharmacist whether your new prescription medication contains acetaminophen. If it does, check all over-the-counter (OTC) medications you take while using the prescription medication to see if the OTC drug products also contain acetaminophen. Do not take two medications that contain acetaminophen, as this can be an overdose and can lead to liver damage. Adults should not take more than 4 grams (4000 mg) of acetaminophen per day. KnowYourDose.org provides additional information on taking the correct amount of acetaminophen to avoid overdose. Ask your pharmacist if you have questions.
- Examine the label and contents when you pick up a refill prescription. If the pills look different than those you were taking, tell your pharmacist immediately.
- Count the pills you are given and make sure the number matches the amount indicated on the label – this is especially important with controlled substances such as pain pills. If you are to receive a 10-day supply of a drug to be taken once a day, for example, make sure there are 10 pills.
When taking medication at home
- Take your medications as directed by the doctor or pharmacist. If you are having difficulty with your medications schedule, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your dosing regimen. Do not try to adjust it yourself.
- If you miss a dose of your medication, or if you mistakenly take more medication than recommended, call your doctor or pharmacist.
- Do not increase, decrease, or stop taking medicine without calling your doctor.
- Do not crush or split pills unless you have been instructed to do so by your doctor or pharmacist.
- Remember to turn on the lights and get your glasses. It's easy to mistake one pill bottle for another. Make sure you double check and read the label every time.
If you or someone else has side effects or reactions to a drug
- Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you believe you are having side effects from a new prescription. Pay attention to how you feel. If you feel differently after beginning a new medication, call your doctor or pharmacist immediately.
- If you believe that you or someone in your care is having a drug interaction, call your doctor or pharmacist immediately.
If you make an error with your medication
- If you mistakenly take medication that is not prescribed for you, or if you have taken too much medication, prescription or non-prescription, call the poison control center immediately. Call 800/222-1222 from anywhere in the United States to be connected to a poison control center.
Follow safe medication use tips
- Do not share your prescription medications with anyone.
- Do not take medication prescribed for someone else.
- Discard outdated medications. See our Medication Disposal section for more information on how to do this properly.
- Store your medications as instructed by the pharmacist and keep them in their original containers. Place them in a safe place away from heat, moisture, or freezing temperatures, and away from where food is stored. The bathroom cabinet is not the best place for medications. Safe places might be in a linen closet or dresser drawer. Be sure to store them out of sight and reach of children. You may want to lock your medications in a cupboard or a medicine safe, especially to avoid unintentional use or misuse by family or visitors to your home.
- If you have more than one doctor, keep a list of all your medications – including prescription and non-prescription drugs – to show each doctor. Include the dose amount, strength, and how many times a day you take each medicine. (Example, 1 loratadine tablet (10 mg) once a day.)
If you use an injectable prescription medication
- Store used needles and sharps in an appropriate metal or hard plastic container with a lid.
- You can purchase syringe disposal containers through your local pharmacy.
- You can also purchase a safe-clip at your local pharmacy to dispose of the needle and discard the syringe in the trash.
- Ask your pharmacist for additional suggestions.
- Call your state health department to inquire about local laws covering disposal of medical waste. Some states have strict requirements.