Nearly half of all Americans take a prescription medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of Americans take three or more prescription drugs, and 12% take at least five medications.
In 2020 alone, 4.55 billion prescriptions will be filled in the United States, according to industry estimates. With all of those medications in the American mainstream – and bloodstream – it’s little surprise that many people have questions about prescription drugs.
To help separate fact from fiction, we spoke with Tomie Ann Boackle, PharmD, associate chief pharmacy officer at UAB Medicine, who answers some common questions about prescription drugs.
Q: My husband and I take the same blood pressure medicine. I’ve run out, but he still has some. Can I take his until I can get a refill?
A: You should not. It’s not safe to take another person’s medication. All prescription medications have a warning label indicating that it’s against federal law to take a medication not prescribed for you.
Q: I didn’t realize I was running low on my cholesterol medicine. It’s Friday night, and I don’t have any refills left. What should I do?
A: Every prescription comes with a patient information leaflet that contains written information, instructions, and warnings. There, you’ll find information about what to do if you are late for or miss a dose. For some drugs, it’s very important not to skip a dose, but for others it’s not harmful. If it’s an emergency, contact your provider or practice group. The after-hours physician on call can phone in a limited-quantity prescription to a 24/7 pharmacy.
Q: I feel a migraine coming on, but my migraine medication expired six months ago. Is it safe to take?
A: I don’t recommend taking expired medications, because they may lose potency or not work as intended. Humid bathrooms, hot kitchens, and cold basements can impact a medication’s effectiveness.
Q: My mother went out of town to visit my sister and forgot her medicine. What should she do?
A: Your mom can go to any pharmacist, who will contact her home pharmacy for a prescription transfer or a temporary prescription. If she’s going to be there for a long time, she may want to contact her doctor for a one-time refill. Keep in mind that her insurance company may not pay for the prescription if she just had it refilled at home.
Q: I’m going on a four-week vacation out of the country. Can I stock up on my prescriptions?
A: Insurance companies often will make an allowance if you’re going out of the country and will let you refill prescriptions early. It’s best to talk to your pharmacist, who can work with your provider and insurance company so that you have the medication you need while you’re away. Snowbirds can transfer their prescriptions to the pharmacy that will be taking care of them during winter months.
Q: What’s your best advice for people who take prescription drugs?
A: We recommend maintaining a list of medications and keeping it handy, whether on a piece of paper or on your phone. You can even take a picture of your prescription bottles, as long as you can easily see the prescription number, drug name, instructions, and doctor’s name. There are even ID bracelets that have bar codes that can be scanned by emergency personnel, who are trained to look for that information. Having your medication history readily accessible is important if you’re in an accident, so health care professionals can have the information they need to take care of you.
Q: I’m preparing a go-bag in case there’s a hurricane or other emergency. How do I deal with prescriptions if I have to evacuate quickly?
A: It’s best to keep your medications stored together. That way, you can gather them up quickly and have them with you. Storing medication in your go-bag isn’t ideal, as it can expire. When the governor declares an emergency, that gives pharmacists more flexibility in dispensing medicine. For example, if a hurricane hits the Florida Gulf Coast, Alabama pharmacists can care for evacuees. That said, the more you can do for yourself, the better off you are. At a minimum, have a complete list of medications and dosages in your bag.
Q: I have old bottles of medication. How should I dispose of the pills?
A: If you have controlled drugs that may be abused by others, the best course of action is to use a Drug Enforcement Administration take-back program. If that’s not practical, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends flushing medicines that could harm others and putting less dangerous medications in the trash. Before tossing them, take the medications out of their bottles, mix them with cat litter or dirt, and seal it all in a storage bag or container.
Q: What’s the easiest way to remember to take my medications each day?
A: There are a few strategies you can use. Pill organizers help ensure that you set aside the right dose each day, but they need to be put in a safe place, because now the medication is out of its tamperproof container. There are also pill dispensers that send out alerts and smartphone apps that remind you to take medications. Or, you can create your own reminder system using the alarm clock or reminder function on your phone.
Q: I usually take blue pills, but my refill contains white pills. Is that a problem?
A: Everyone makes mistakes, including pharmacists, but your pills might be from a different manufacturer and look different. Take an active role in knowing what your medication looks like. If something doesn’t look right, ask your pharmacist about it. Never be embarrassed or worry about your pharmacist’s feelings. They’d rather you ask questions than get home and wonder if they made a mistake. In fact, before you leave the pharmacy, it’s best to step away, look at the name on the bottle, and verify that the medication looks like what you were expecting. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Q: I started taking warfarin and am getting bad nosebleeds. Should I stop taking it?
A: If you believe you’re experiencing a medication side effect, call your physician’s office. Your doctor or the on-call physician can assess your symptoms, let you know if they’re related to the medication, and change your dosage or prescription, if needed.
Q: I’ve been taking an antibiotic for four days, and I feel better. Is it OK to stop taking it?
A: No. It’s really important to take all medication as prescribed. When it comes to drugs like antibiotics, stopping them early can allow the infection to come back. When it does, it might be resistant to antibiotics. Always take the full course of medications as prescribed by your medical provider.
Q: Can I take vitamins or herbal supplements with my medication?
A: Maybe. Talk to your pharmacist or physician. Think of vitamins and supplements as prescription medications. You want your pharmacist and doctor to have a complete profile of what you’re taking. If you want to begin a new supplement, talk to your pharmacist to make sure there won’t be an interaction with your prescription medication.
Navigating the world of prescription drugs can lead to questions and worries, but your pharmacist can be a wealth of information. Boackle recommends selecting a preferred pharmacy and building a relationship with your pharmacist.
“Patients should feel like they can consult pharmacists,” Boackle says. “We want to be there to help you, answer questions, and provide good care.”