Is Medication Adherence Important?

On some occasions, you may need to take prescription medications. Most of the time this is fairly straightforward. When you feel sick you can usually make an appointment to see a healthcare provider within a few days. If you need a prescription you can typically get it from the pharmacy with little, if any, delay.

Yellow and white pills on a white background
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But once in a while, circumstances are not so straightforward. You could get sick while you are out of town, or you may feel that you need to take more or less of your prescribed medicine. If you have some leftover prescription medications in your medicine cabinet, you may want to bypass the process of making an appointment to see the healthcare provider. Your friend might have some prescription medication and suggest that you take it. There are numerous reasons that would prompt you to consider deciding when and how much prescription strength medicine to take without consulting with a medical professional.

But it is important to know what to do in these situations because your health and safety are worth taking the time to treat your body right.

When You Can't Make It to the Healthcare Provider

Whether you are on vacation or busy "all the time," you understandably have occasions when you feel sick but just can't take a break to take care of yourself. You want to take something for your fever or your pain or even for something more serious, but you don't feel that you can stop in the midst of everything you have going on.

If you are on vacation in your own country or abroad, you are likely not too far from an urgent care clinic staffed by medical personnel. Most insurance plans do cover such visits and international destinations will accept reasonable payment for urgent visits. If your problem is mild, you can usually get a prescription for the most suitable medication fairly quickly. And if your situation is more serious, then you will be grateful that you didn't try to wait it out.

If your excuse is that you are too busy to take the time to get medical attention, consider checking if your insurance plan covers telemedicine visits. Many routine medical problems are now handled with video conferencing telemedicine consultations that save time and increase convenience.

When You Have Old Medications in Your Medicine Cabinet

Taking a Medication That Was Previously Prescribed for You

It is fairly common for medical problems such as headaches, muscle aches, or infections to resolve before you have taken all of your medication. If you had a relatively simple illness month or even years ago, you might have held on to your prescription treatment because you never got around to throwing it out or because you wanted to keep it "just in case" you ever needed to take it again. 

If you find yourself experiencing the same symptoms that resolved with the medicine you have in your home, you might be tempted to take more each time you get sick. Sometimes this works out, and sometimes it just doesn’t.

When It Is OK to Take Your Old Medications

Often it is fine to take more of your prescription when you feel sick again. If your prescription bottle says that your dose is "PRN," that means you can take the medicine as needed. In many circumstances, it is fine to take the medicine again when your symptoms return.

But, if your medical condition has changed since you first got your prescription, then you should check with your healthcare provider first. And if you have been prescribed PRN medications, then you should regularly see your healthcare provider make sure that your overall health has not changed.

When It Might Not Be OK to Take Your Leftover Prescriptions 

If your old medications were given to you for post-surgical pain, for an infection, or for a heart condition, then you should not take them again, even if your symptoms recur, regardless of whether or not they were written for PRN use.

It is important to get the approval of your healthcare provider or nurse before resuming medications for these types of illnesses.

Depending on your medical condition, it may be perfectly safe for you to take the medicine that has been quietly waiting for you in your medicine cabinet. But when it comes to illnesses such as heart problems or infections, your symptoms may feel the same, but you might not have exactly the same illness you had last time. Your healthcare provider might recommend that you take a higher or lower dose, or may call in a different prescription instead. And, depending on your health, your healthcare provider might feel safer waiting until you are seen either urgently or within a few days.

Decreasing Your Medication Dose

Decreasing medication dose is one of the most common adjustments that people want to make with prescription medications. Most of the time, this can be safe and still effective. However, depending on the situation, reducing the dose can make a medication less effective, which can end up being quite dangerous if the medication was prescribed for a serious illness.

If you want to cut back on your medication dose, you can call your healthcare provider or pharmacist, who should be able to tell you whether it is safe to take a lower dose. If it turns out that you should not take a lower dose because it would decrease the effectiveness of your medication, then you may need a new prescription for a different medicine that agrees with you.

Increasing Your Medication Dose

On the other hand, if you feel that your medication is not strong enough for you, you might be tempted to increase the dose. As with reducing your dose, this might be safe. You can check with your pharmacy or healthcare provider's office, and you might get the green light to go ahead and increase your dose by a certain amount. However, prescription medications are quite strong, and sometimes taking a higher dose is not safe. In some instances, it may be safer for you to take more than one type of treatment instead of a higher dose of one medicine in order to avoid the serious side effects that can result from taking a very high dose.

How Medication Doses Are Calculated

While there are recommended medication doses, the exact same dose is not necessarily equally safe and effective for everyone. Factors such as a person's weight, metabolism, and even other medications and vitamins can affect the way a person’s body processes and respond to medications. This is why you may need a dose adjustment that is higher or lower than the normally recommended dose.

But in order to maximize the safety and effectiveness of your prescriptions, decisions about dosing adjustments should always be made with the recommendation of your healthcare provider, nurse or pharmacist.

Stopping Your Medications on Your Own

Some prescriptions are safe to stop taking abruptly, but some are not. Anti-seizure medications, steroids, and heart medications are among those that can cause significant withdrawal effects that may be even worse than the medical condition for which they were given in the first place.

Other medications, such as blood thinners, do not make you feel obviously better in the short run but prevent serious medical emergencies such as strokes and heart attacks. If someone stops taking a medication like a blood thinner because it doesn't 'feel' as if it working, this can lead to a sudden and profound medical consequence.

If you experience side effects from your medications, your healthcare provider can work with you to create a plan to substitute for a medication that is more tolerable, without putting you at risk of withdrawal or a medical emergency.

Taking Someone Else's Medications

It is normal to talk about medical symptoms with friends and family. And many people find themselves realizing that friends have had similar symptoms that improved after taking prescription medications. There are a number of reasons why sharing prescription medications is not safe.

Your friend or family member was given a prescription for his or her medical problem. While your symptoms may sound the same, your illness, medical history, and allergies may not be the same as someone else's. If you do not get better, or if you experience side effects or complications, your friend will not be able to rescue you. Even if the medication is effective, sharing a friend's extra prescriptions is unlikely to provide you with enough medicine to help your situation.

You can certainly keep your friend's experience in mind in terms of how he or she feels about the effectiveness and side effects of the medicine. But not every medicine affects everyone in exactly the same way- or else there would be a clear 'favorite' that all healthcare providers prescribed for each illness, but that is not the case.

Sharing Your Medication

Sharing your own prescriptions when you empathize with a friend may seem like a compassionate thing to do. But it is a huge responsibility. If your friend has a bad reaction, you will not be able to save him or her. Sharing your experiences can be helpful, but sharing your prescriptions is not.

Intravenous Therapy

Some illnesses are managed with therapy that is given in a medical center, such as intravenous (IV) therapy. If you do not like your therapy because of any reason, such as the inconvenience of going in for IV treatment, the side effects or your gut feeling that it isn't working, it is important to tell your medical team that you want to discontinue the treatment rather than not showing up for appointments. As with many other medication strategies, your team can change your therapy to something else that you can tolerate so that you can benefit from treatment, instead of abandoning it altogether.

A Word From Verywell

Medication adherence can be challenging. Usually, it is easy to take medications as prescribed. But occasionally, factors such as convenience, unpleasant side effects and your sense that the medicine isn't doing what you want it to do can get in the way. You can take steps to ensure that you receive medicines that are more suitable for you whenever things don't feel right. Your medical team is very concerned not just with sending you off with a prescription, but also with making sure that the prescriptions you take are right for you.

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.
  • Medication Adherence Measures: An Overview, Lam WY, Fresco P, Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:217047.

By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.