Taking Control of Your Medications

man holding pills

What is ‘compliance’?

Compliance simply means following your health care team’s recommendations. These often include taking medications as well as making lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight and getting the right kind of physical activity. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important in reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Taking medications properly is another part of compliance. Medications may not work unless taken as prescribed. Or they can leave you dizzy, sick or worse. Or, without knowing it, you could counteract one medication by taking it with another.

Take part in treatment decisions and, if you don’t understand something, ask questions. Carefully follow the agreed-upon treatment plan, watch for and work with your health care team to solve any problems.

Understanding medications

Review these questions with your health care team and be actively engaged in your health. If you think you might have trouble understanding your doctor or pharmacist, ask a friend or loved one to go with you to listen, help you and take notes.

  • What is the name of the medication?
  • Is this the brand or generic name?
  • What is the medication supposed to do?
  • How and when do I take it, and for how long?
  • What is one dose?
  • Should I take it with food or on an empty stomach?
  • What foods, drinks, other medications, or activities should I avoid while taking it?
  • Is there any written information available about the medication?
  • What happens if I miss a dose of my medication?
  • How often will I have to get the medication refilled?
  • How will I know that my medication is working?
  • What are the risks of taking this medication?
  • What are the risks of NOT taking this medication?
  • Are there less expensive medications for my condition? 

Remembering medications

These tips will help you remember to take your medications. Choose those that will work best for you.

  • Take your medication at the same time every day.
  • Take it along with other daily events, like brushing your teeth.
  • Ask people close to you to help remind you.
  • Get some colored labels and stick them on your medication bottles to simplify your routine. For example, blue can be for morning, red for afternoon and yellow for bedtime.
  • Many types of pill containers are available. You can find some that are divided into sections for each day of the week. Timer caps for pills bottles even beep to remind you when to take medication. Ask your pharmacist about these aids.
  • Ask your pharmacist to help you come up with a coding system for your medications that makes them easier to take. Some pharmacists will prepare blister packs for daily or weekly medications.
  • Make an instruction sheet for yourself by taping a sample of each pill you take on a sheet of paper and writing down all the information about each pill to remind you.
  • Keep a "medication calendar" near your medications and make a note every time you take each dose.
  • Put a sticker or reminder note on your medicine cabinet or refrigerator. Or buy a small magnetized whiteboard and use dry-erase markers to list your pills on it. Each day, mark the board when you take your medication. Then, and at the end of the day, erase the marks and start over again in the morning. Download a printable medicine tracker (PDF).
  • If you're using a commercial pill dispenser, set a regular time each week to refill it. For example, you might fill it every Friday night after you eat.
  • If you're away from home a lot, make sure you carry enough of your medication with you to take the prescribed doses while you're out.

Staying safe

Follow these tips:

  • ALWAYS keep medications away from heat, light and moisture. Store your medication the way your doctor or pharmacist tells you.
  • Tell your health care team if you have any side effects or if you don't think your medication is making a difference. NEVER stop taking any medications without first talking to your health care team.
  • Ask for your pharmacist's advice before crushing or splitting tablets. Some should only be swallowed whole.
  • Don't share your meds with anyone else. What's right for you could be deadly for them.
  • Before buying a new over-the-counter medicine, such as antihistamines or cold tablets, ask your doctor or pharmacist about it. Be sure it won't interfere with your prescribed medication.
  • If your medication routine is too complicated, ask your health care professional or pharmacist to help you simplify it. For example, there might be a way to reduce the number of daily doses that you need.
  • If your medications are too expensive, ask your health care team or pharmacist about finding financial assistance.
  • Make sure that ALL of your health care professionals know ALL of the prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, nutritional supplements or herbal preparations you're taking. See the next section.

Checking medications

Prescription and over-the-counter medications can work wonders when taken the right way. But using them incorrectly can harm you.

The more meds you take, the greater your risk of problems. That’s why a medication checkup is a good idea. One benefit is that it can help you find dangerous medication combinations. It may also reveal medications you don’t need to take anymore or improper dosages. You may even discover mistakes in how you’re taking your medications.

To protect your health, follow these simple steps for doing a medication checkup:

  • Make an appointment with your doctor or your pharmacist.
  • Put all your prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs in a bag, including:
    • Prescriptions in vials, tubes, bottles and plastic bags
    • Sleep and motion-sickness aids
    • Headache remedies
    • Cold remedies (liquid, capsules and tablets)
    • Laxatives and upset-stomach aids
    • Other over-the-counter drugs you may be taking
    • Vitamins and nutritional supplements
    • Herbal remedies
  • Bring your medications in their original containers if you can.
  • Take the bag to your doctor or pharmacist so they can review all of your meds with you.
  • Ask questions about anything you don't understand.