Staying Safe When You Take Several Medicines

Overview

Older adults and people with long-term diseases often need to take a lot of pills.

That can cause problems. If you take more than one medicine that works the same way, you could get too high a dose. And sometimes medicines work against each other.

It's important to ask every doctor you visit to look at your complete list of medicines.

The more medicines you take, the greater your chance of having problems. Problems may be more likely if:

  • You see more than one doctor and don't tell each one about all the medicines you take.
  • You use more than one drugstore. The pharmacists may not know all the medicines you take.
  • You're an older adult. As you age, your body slows down. Some medicines stay in your body longer.
  • One medicine gives you side effects, so you take another one to feel better.
  • You take herbs or vitamins without talking to your doctor or pharmacist first.

How to avoid problems

If you're taking a lot of medicines, here are some things you can do to avoid problems.

  • Know what counts as medicine.
    • Just about anything you take counts, whether your doctor prescribed it or you bought it over the counter.
    • It's important to remember that herbs, home remedies, diet supplements, and vitamins can have strong effects on the body. For example, ginseng and garlic supplements may raise your chance of bleeding. They could be dangerous if you take aspirin or some other blood thinner, which can also raise the chance of bleeding.
  • Keep your doctor informed.
    • Make a list of everything you take. Don't forget pills like cold medicine or aspirin. Keep a copy in your purse or wallet, and take it to each doctor or hospital visit. Anytime you see a new doctor, show them your list. Some doctors like you to bring all your pill bottles with you.
    • Remember to include herbs, vitamins, and over-the-counter medicines on your list. They can cause problems when you take them with other medicines.
    • Never take any kind of medicine without asking your doctor or pharmacist about it.
  • Learn about your medicines.
    • Read the information sheet that comes with prescription medicine. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
    • For all your medicines, be sure you know the name of the medicine and what health problem you're using it for.
    • Follow directions about how much medicine to take and when to take it.
    • Know what side effects to watch for.
    • Find out what to do if you miss a dose of your medicine. Ask your doctor if there are any medicines you should not take.
    • Find out if you should avoid certain foods and beverages (such as grapefruit juice), alcohol, certain activities, or other medicines while taking any of your medicines.
    • Keep track of your refills and when you need to pick them up.
  • Ask if there are any medicines you don't need anymore.
    • It's a good idea to ask your doctor this question regularly—maybe every 6 months or every year.
    • But never stop taking medicine without asking your doctor first.
  • Don't take anything new without asking.
    • Never take any kind of medicine without asking your doctor or pharmacist about it.
    • Ask your doctor or pharmacist to run your list of medicines through a drug interaction checker. This is a computer program that checks for drugs that can cause problems when you take them together.
  • Store medicine properly.
    • Keep medicines in a dry, cool place, or as it says on the label. Only keep your medicine in the refrigerator if your doctor or pharmacist tells you to.
  • Do not use expired medicine.
    • Always check the date on the label. If the medicine is expired, check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if you can get a refill.
  • Throw away old or unwanted medicine safely.
    • Check the label on the medicine bottle or box or the information that came with your medicine. It may tell you how to get rid of the medicine safely. If you have any questions about how to get rid of medicines, ask a pharmacist for help.
    • Find out if your local pharmacy or hospital offers a medicine take-back program or drop-off box for medicines that are expired or no longer used.
    • If there isn't a take-back program or drop-off box near you, follow these steps to throw away medicine with the rest of your garbage:
      • Take the medicine out of the container it came in. You can throw that container away. But first scratch out any personal information printed on the label. This will help protect your identity and health information.
      • Mix the medicine with a substance that doesn't taste good, such as cat litter, sawdust, or coffee grounds. Don't crush tablets or capsules.
      • Place the mixture in some other container, such as a sealed plastic bag or can.
      • Put that container in your household trash.
    • Flush them down the sink or toilet. Only a few medicines should be flushed down the sink or toilet if you can't use a take-back program or drop-off box. These medicines include prescription pain medicines, such as oxycodone or morphine. To see a list of medicines that should be flushed down the sink or toilet, go to www.FDA.gov and search for "unused medicine disposal."
  • Do not share medicine.
    • It is never a good idea to borrow medicines or share medicines with another person.
  • Use one drugstore for all your medicines.
    • Before you fill any new prescription, give the pharmacist your list of medicines. Ask about possible interactions with any other medicines you take.
    • If you fill prescriptions at more than one drugstore, make sure each of them has your list.

Credits

Current as of: September 20, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Theresa O'Young PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy