How to Take Oral Medications Properly

The most common way people take medications is orally (by mouth). Depending on what your healthcare provider prescribed, your oral medication can be swallowed, chewed, or placed under your tongue to dissolve.

Medications that you swallow travel from your stomach or intestine into your bloodstream and then are carried to all parts of your body. This process is known as absorption. The speed with which absorption occurs depends on several factors:

  • The type of medication you are taking (e.g., liquid or tablet)
  • Whether you take your medication with food, after food or on an empty stomach
  • The ability of your medication to pass into your bloodstream (some medications are coated to dissolve more slowly in your stomach)
  • How your medication reacts with the acid conditions in your stomach
  • Whether your medication interacts with other medications you are taking at the same time

If a quick effect is desired, your healthcare provider may prescribe a medication that will dissolve in your mouth and rapidly enter your bloodstream.

Close up of man holding a glass of water and medication in his hand
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Tablets and Capsules

In general, you should take tablets and capsules with water. Taking certain pills, such as Lipitor (atorvastatin) and Viagra (sildenafil), with fruit juices such as grapefruit can cause potentially dangerous side effects. Milk can block the absorption of many antibiotics, such as Cipro (ciprofloxacin).

Your healthcare provider or pharmacist will tell you whether to take your medication on an empty stomach or before or after eating. This information is very important because digesting food can interfere with your medication dissolving and passing into your bloodstream. Always follow the directions on your prescription.

Never break, crush, or chew any capsule or tablet unless directed to by your healthcare provider or pharmacist. Many medications are long-acting or have a special coating and must be swallowed whole. If you have any questions about this, ask your pharmacist.

If you have trouble swallowing your medication, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist. They may be able to provide you with a liquid form of the medication or a pill that is smaller and easier to swallow.

Liquid Medications

Liquid medications are good for children and adults (especially older adults) who are not able to swallow tablets or capsules.

Many liquid medications, including both prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, are made for children and are flavored to mask the taste of the medication. Additionally, many pharmacies can add different flavoring to liquid medications without an additional prescription by the healthcare provider.

Before measuring the proper dose of liquid medication, make sure to shake the bottle as some of the medication may have “settled” at the bottom.

Most often, you'll be given medication measurements in teaspoons (remember that teaspoons are smaller than tablespoons). In medicine, a teaspoon means exactly 5 milliliters (ml).

Your household teaspoons may hold more or less than 5 ml. Ask your pharmacist for a spoon, medicine cup, medicine dropper, or a syringe (without a needle) meant specifically for measuring medications. They can show you how to properly use these.

Many over-the-counter liquid medications come with a small medicine cup attached to the top of the bottle.

If the medication has been prescribed for an infant or young child, make sure to speak with your pediatrician about the proper dosage, or amount, of liquid medication for your child.

Sublingual and Buccal Medications

Certain medications are placed under the tongue (sublingual) or between the teeth and the cheek (buccal). These medications are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream through the lining of the mouth and are used to relieve symptoms almost immediately.

Some examples of sublingual medications are Nitrostat and other nitroglycerin preparations used to treat angina (chest pain) and Suboxone (buprenorphine with naloxone), which is used to treat dependence on heroin and/or narcotic painkillers.

Other Forms of Oral Medications

Although most oral medications are swallowed, some are released in the mouth by chewing, dissolving slowly or melting on the tongue. Many of these medications are sold over-the-counter.

Chewable Tablets

Chewable tablets should be chewed until they have completely dissolved. They're not meant to be swallowed whole.

Examples of chewable tablets include Tylenol Chewable and many brands of children’s vitamins.

Chewing Gum Medications

Chewing gum medications have a minimum time that they must be chewed to ensure that the entire amount of drug has been released, often up to 30 minutes.

Examples of medicated chewing gums include Nicorette Gum (nicotine) and Aspergum (aspirin).


Lozenges are meant to dissolve slowly in your mouth, like hard candy. They should not be swallowed.

Examples of medicated lozenges include Commit (nicotine) and Cepacol (benzocaine).

Softchew Medications

Softchew medications are meant to melt in your mouth or to be chewed.

Examples of softchew medications include Rolaids Soft Chew (calcium carbonate) and Triaminic Softchews Chest Congestion (guaifenesin and pseudoephedrine).

Tip for Swallowing Pills

Swallowing pills can be an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience for some. If you have difficulty swallowing pills, there are things that you can do to facilitate this process.

For example, German researchers found success with the following technique called the "pop bottle method." This technique was tested with tablets.

  1. Open a bottle of water or use a soda bottle filled with water.
  2. Place the tablet on your tongue and close your mouth around the opening of the bottle.
  3. Tilt your head back and keep your mouth sealed around the water bottle. Don't let any air into your mouth. Suck the water into your mouth and swallow the tablet and water.

Please note that this intervention has not been tested extensively and, if interested, you should discuss this technique with your healthcare provider before you try it. Furthermore, if you have difficulty swallowing in general, you should probably be evaluated for dysphagia.

On a final note, always read the instructions carefully and take your medications as recommended. If you have any doubts or concerns, contact your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you swallow chewable pills?

    No, chewable pills are designed to be chewed and not swallowed whole. Some of the medication in chewable tablets mix with digestive enzymes in your saliva and are absorbed through the membranes in the mouth.

    Swallowing a chewable pill can result in the medication not working as quickly or effectively. In addition, chewable tablets are often quite large and can be difficult to swallow.

  • Is it OK to chew medication?

    Not unless it is a chewable formulation. Many medication labels warn that you should not crush or chew a tablet. In particular, time- or extended-release tablets should never be chewed. Doing so can result in more medication being released into the bloodstream, which can be dangerous.

    In addition, some medications can irritate the stomach lining. Chewing these medications can compound the problem.

  • Can I crush and hide medication in food?

    Sometimes, but check with your pharmacist first. Some medications, like time-released formulas, should never be crushed as they can result in too much medicine entering the bloodstream at once.

    If the pharmacist says the medication is safe to mix into food, yogurt, ice cream, or apple sauce are popular foods that can help the medicine go down.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. National Library of Medicine. Drugs and Lactation Database: Ciprofloxacin.

  4. Cheng L, Wong H. Food Effects on Oral Drug Absorption: Application of Physiologically-Based Pharmacokinetic Modeling as a Predictive Tool. Pharmaceutics. 2020 Jul 17;12(7):672. doi:10.3390/pharmaceutics12070672.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Crushing tablets or opening capsules: many uncertainties, some established dangers. Prescrire Int. 2014 Sep;23(152):209-11, 213-4.

  6. Schiele JT et al. Two techniques to make swallowing pills easier. Annals of Family Medicine. 2014;12(6):550-562. doi:10.1370/afm.1693

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By Michael Bihari, MD
Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.