Taking Your Medication: A Smart Choice for Staying Healthy

Medicines can be an important part of treatment for serious infections. They can help relieve pain and lift depression. They can also combat some of the nation's leading causes of death and disability.

Today's medications can help control many common chronic diseases and lower the complications associated with them. According to the American Academy of Family Medications, medications play an important role in helping keep people out of the hospital.

So, why do so many people not take their medications effectively or at all? In fact, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), one in four Americans doesn't take his or her medication as prescribed.

There are a variety of reasons for not taking medications correctly. Often, people don't understand how to take their medication correctly or lose track of their medication during the day. Some stop taking medication because they feel it is no longer needed. Others can't afford the expense of medication, especially those without insurance. And some stop taking their medication because of unpleasant side effects.

Are there risks?

Taking medications on time and correctly is extremely important. When you don't take medications as prescribed, they may not work as well as they should, or you may have a greater risk for side effects.

But the effects of not taking some medications aren't always obvious. People who don't take their blood pressure or cholesterol medications may feel well, but their blood pressure or cholesterol numbers may be rising. That can increase their risk for heart attack or stroke.

Tips you can try

There's a lot you can do to help your medications work safely and effectively. Experts suggest that you:

  • Gather information. Request brochures and pamphlets about your condition and medication from your doctor's office. And, ask your doctor to recommend reliable Web sites that may help. Your nurse information service is another good resource, if you have access to one.

  • Make a list of your medications. Include all medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies that you use. Share this list with all your doctors and your pharmacist, and keep it up-to-date. This makes it easier for them to spot - and prevent - potentially dangerous drug interactions.

  • Don't rely on your memory. Buy a special pill case that's divided into the days of the week. Then keep it somewhere in plain sight but safe from children. Newer boxes have built-in alarms and a recorded voice to remind you. Another idea: Take your medication at the same time every day, perhaps when you brush your teeth or feed the dog. Set your watch alarm to go off when you need to take a dose. Even a note on the refrigerator may help you remember.

  • Talk with your doctor. Before you stop taking a medication or start taking fewer doses to save money or simplify your schedule, call your doctor - even if symptoms disappear or you don't think the medicine is working. Suddenly stopping some medications can be dangerous.

  • Ask about a simpler schedule. If you just can't keep track of all your medications and when to take them, ask your doctor for help. With some medications, you may be able to switch to a different dose that doesn't need to be taken as often.

  • Explore more affordable options. Prescriptions can take a big bite out of your budget, even if your health benefits include drug coverage. But, taking less medication or skipping doses isn't a safe way to save money. If you've been prescribed a brand-name medication, ask your doctor about using a generic instead. It will have the same active ingredients as its brand-name version but may cost less. Are you eligible to order your medications at a discount? Check with your health plan. Some pharmacies and drug companies offer discount cards, too. Sometimes, you may be able to buy a larger dose and split it to save money. It may be cheaper, for instance, to buy 200 mg tablets and break them in half if you only need 100 mg.

Taking your medication as directed is just one part of your overall strategy for staying healthy. But, don't underestimate its importance. Remember, it's just what the doctor ordered.

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