How to Get Better About Taking Your Meds

Three oblong white pills on a yellow background.

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Key Takeaways

  • Everyone needs to know the “what, why, and how” of their prescriptions, but it’s especially important for older adults because they are more likely to be taking multiple medications and may struggle with adherence.
  • Your providers will know a lot about the medications they prescribe, but a pharmacist is also a valuable resource for your questions or concerns.

If you’re prone to forgetting a medication dose or skirting rules about when and how to take your meds, listen up.

The National Council on Patient Information (NCPIE) spent the month of October urging all individuals who take prescription medications, especially seniors, to “Talk About Your Medications.” But the problems of medication adherence isn’t limited to a single month.

Here’s what experts say you should know about your meds, where to turn for answers to your prescription questions, and ways to improve your medication adherence.

What Should I Know About My Medications?

La Vonia Cannon, RPh, Healthcare Supervisor of Western Operations for Walgreens, told Verywell that you need to have a conversation with your provider or pharmacist about the medications that have been prescribed for you.

To put it simply, Cannon said “you should ask what, why, and how, to ensure you take your medications correctly.”

  • What am I taking? This will include the name (or names) of the medication, the type of drug it is, and any possible side effects and risks of taking it.
  • Why am I taking it? This includes finding out why the medication was prescribed for you and how it will improve your health.
  • How am I to take it? This will help you understand the right way to take your med—for example, the time of day you should take it and how much you should take (dose).

How Am I Supposed to Take My Medication?

Before you start taking a medication, make sure that you understand how to take it correctly. Your provider or pharmacist can go over this information with you. You’ll also find instructions on the bottle or as paper inserts that come with your medication when you pick it up from the pharmacy.

Here are a few examples of what you should make sure you understand about your prescriptions before you start taking them.

  • Can I take my meds with food? Eating can affect how certain medications work because food can affect absorption. You may need to take your medication before you have had anything to eat (on an empty stomach). If food does not affect how the medication is absorbed, it might not matter if you take it with or without food. Sometimes, your provider will suggest you take your medication with food because it may help prevent side effects.
  • Does it matter what time I take my meds? You might be able to take your medication according to your schedule. However, some drugs need to be taken at a certain time of day. For example, cholesterol-lowering medications are often prescribed for you to take before you go to bed because that’s when they are most effective.
  • Can I cut or crush my meds? Some medications can be cut with a pill splitter, crushed, or opened to make them easier to take. However, some medications cannot be changed because they are made a certain way to ensure they deliver the medication properly. For example, pills that are timed-release or long-acting have to be taken as they come in the bottle, you cannot crush or split them. If you have a medication with a line on it (called scoring), that usually means it is safe to split in half if you need to divide your dose or have a hard time swallowing a large tablet. Again, always ask your provider or pharmacist before making any change to your medication.

The Risks for Older Adults

Everyone who takes prescription medications needs to understand them, but it’s especially important for older adults. Medication management tends to get more challenging as people age, in part because older adults are often taking multiple prescriptions.

What If I Can’t Change My Hard-to-Swallow Pills?

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN author of Just The Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Drugs & How to Take Them Safely, told Verywell that if you have a pill you are having trouble swallowing but it can’t be crushed or split, “tilting your head back might help you swallow” it.

You might need to take a different approach for other kinds of pills. For example, Durning said that “capsules float because they’re lighter, so bending your head forward as if you’re praying can help in that case.”

Durning added that if a pill or capsule cannot be crushed or cut and is too difficult to swallow, it’s worth asking your provider if the medications are available in liquid form.

How Can I Keep Track of My Medications?

Always have an up-to-date list of your prescription medications handy, including things like inhalers and injectable medications. In an emergency, it will be much easier to grab a premade list than it would be to try to gather all of your medications. Update your list any time your provider makes a change.

“The more accessible information you have available, the better-personalized care your healthcare team can provide you in an emergency,” said Cannon.

Cannon said that you also need to tell your provider and pharmacist about any over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements that you use. Some products can interact with prescription drugs. Your pharmacist can search for potential interactions between your prescriptions and OTC products.

It’ll help to keep a list of your medications in digital format (for example, in Google Docs). That way, it will always be accessible to you on your smartphone. If you get all of your medications at the same pharmacy, ask the pharmacist to print you a list.

What If I Forget to Take My Medication?

A pill reminder box is an easy, “set-it-and-forget-it” way to make sure that you are taking the correct medications at the right time—especially if you take medications at different times of the day. A pill box is something you only have to set up once a week—for example, you might make it a habit to set out your pills for the week ahead on Sunday night.

If you still struggle to remember to take your medications, try setting a reminder on your phone or ask a loved one to call you.

Some smartphone apps also make medication management easier. For example, Medisafe, a free app for Android and iPhones, reminds you to take your medications and refill prescriptions. It can also alert a caregiver if you miss a medication dose, check for drug interactions, and offer coupon codes on some prescriptions.

What If I Want to Stop Taking My Medication?

Never stop taking a medication that has been prescribed for you without talking to your provider or pharmacist. It can be dangerous to stop certain medications abruptly.

For example, if you stop taking some antidepressants suddenly you may have withdrawal symptoms. If you want to stop, it’s important to gradually reduce your dose (weaning) to help prevent this from happening.

If you are having side effects, tell your provider rather than just quitting the medication. You might be able to change how you take a drug or take a different dose to help reduce any side effects you’re having. If you’ve only just started taking a medication, know that side effects often get better with time.

If you don’t feel like your medication is helping you, keep taking it until you’ve had a chance to talk to your provider. They might recommend that you try changing your dose or adding another medication to your routine before stopping it altogether.

Should I Worry About Medication Side Effects?

Looking at the long list of possible side effects of a medication that’s been prescribed for you can be intimidating, but try not to let it scare you.

According to Durning, by law, “pharmaceutical companies have to list every side effect that has been experienced by someone.” That list of side effects is “usually split into most common, not very often, and most rare.”

As Durning put it, that list of side effects “is there to make you aware that these things can happen, but it doesn’t mean that they will.”

Even if you do experience side effects, Durning said that many of them can be eased by taking your medications with food, taking your dose at another time of day, or switching to a different drug in the same class.

Who Can I Ask For Help?

When your provider prescribes a medication for you, they can go over what you need to know. That said, they aren’t the only place you can get reliable, helpful information.

Cannon said that your local pharmacist is another invaluable resource for any prescription questions or concerns you have.

“Pharmacists are the medication experts within your community and have the resources and knowledge to support you and be a valuable member of your healthcare team,” said Cannon. “The pharmacist’s role is as big as you allow it to be. The more open and frequent conversations you have with your pharmacist, the more they can support your overall health and wellbeing.”

What This Means For You

Many people take prescription medications, and may even take more than one. Making sure that you understand the right way to safely take your prescriptions is key. If you have questions or concerns about any medications you take, talk to your provider or pharmacist.

7 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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  2. AARP. Timing when to take your daily medications.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Best practices for tablet splitting.

  4. National Institute on Aging. The dangers of polypharmacy and the case for deprescribing in older adults.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Drug interactions: what you should know.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Going off antidepressants.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Finding and learning about side effects (adverse reactions).

By Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN
 Cyra-Lea, BSN, RN, is a writer and nurse specializing in heart health and cardiac care.