prescribed medications
The Preventive Health Issue

The Importance of Taking Prescribed Medications

Even if you’re not sick

Taking your prescribed medications is not only crucial for treating a short-term health condition or illness, but it plays an imperative role in preventing long-lasting complications.

Taking medication for conditions that do not noticeably affect you can be frustrating, but there is a good reason. For example, although you may not feel symptoms of high blood pressure, if high blood pressure is left untreated, it could lead to heart attack or stroke.

What Is Medication Adherence?

Medication adherence is taking medication as recommended by a healthcare provider. Someone who takes their medication 80% or more of the time is considered to be adhering to their medication recommendations.

On an individual level, adhering to prescribed medications improves our quality of life and may prevent disease progression and associated complications.

On a broader scale, medication nonadherence has profound healthcare cost implications. A review of studies found that medication nonadherence leads to poor health outcomes, increasing healthcare service utilization and overall healthcare costs. This can ultimately create higher copayments or increase your employer's coverage costs.

This article discusses why medication is prescribed, how to best access medication, and tips for adherence.

Medication Adherence for Primary Prevention

It can be hard to understand why it is necessary to take medication even when you feel well. And when it comes to staying healthy, medication adherence can be just as crucial as other preventive care measures such as vaccinations and health screenings. Also, sticking to your prescribed treatment regimen is necessary for preventing some conditions from worsening over time.

Below we outline two common examples in which taking your prescribed medication is essential.

Statins for Heart Disease Risk

Statins, such as Lipitor (atorvastatin), Crestor (rosuvastatin), or Zocor (simvastatin), are frequently prescribed to help lower cholesterol levels and prevent complications such as heart attack and stroke.

People with high cholesterol usually do not have any symptoms. It can seem all too easy to skip a dose here and there or even stop taking the medication if side effects, such as muscle pains, are too bothersome. But having high levels of LDL cholesterol can cause fat to build up in the blood vessels, progressing to a heart attack or stroke.

Even though high cholesterol does not usually have symptoms, taking the medication as prescribed is essential to prevent these complications, which can be life-threatening or cause death.

Antibiotics for Bacterial Infections

Here’s a common scenario: Your healthcare provider prescribes a 10-day course of antibiotics for a bacterial strep throat infection. By day five, you're feeling great. Thinking you're cured, you stop taking your medication. Slowly but surely, the infection returns.

Antibiotics are designed to be taken for a specific length of time. If you stop too soon, the bacteria can return, and you will feel sick again. Antibiotics can have bothersome side effects, making it tempting to cut your treatment short. In this case, you can talk to your healthcare provider. They can change your antibiotic to one that you might tolerate better.

Finishing your complete antibiotic regimen is especially important in preventing antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is when the medications no longer work because the bacteria can overpower them, and it's a big public health problem. That is why it is essential to take antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Note that antibiotics do not treat viral infections such as the cold, flu, or COVID-19.

Most of the time, you should avoid stopping your antibiotic regimen early. However, you should immediately discontinue your treatment and seek medical care if you think you are experiencing an allergic reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include:

  • Hives
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the face, lips, throat, or tongue.

These are just a few examples of why adherence is so important. Several types of pharmaceutical treatments help prevent further complications and worsening of diseases. Even if you're feeling well, that medication you're taking every day might still be at work in your system to keep you healthy. Don't be afraid to speak to your healthcare provider and ask questions.

Taking Charge of Your Medication Regimen

While you may have the best intentions to take your medication as recommended by a healthcare provider, things can get in the way. Below are common reasons for medication nonadherence.

Prescription Costs

About 75% of adults in the United States find prescription drug costs unaffordable, and almost 33% of adults admit they have not taken their medicines as directed because of high prices. On average, U.S. adults pay over $1,500 per person per year for their medications. However, there are some ways to help reduce your cost.

Ask your healthcare provider for generic medications if they are available for your condition(s). Medicines that are available in generic form can result in significant cost savings. In some cases, there may be no generic version available. For example, Livalo is a brand-name statin medication used to treat high cholesterol. There is currently no generic of Livalo. In this instance, there are a few things you can do:

  • Before filling the brand-name prescription at your pharmacy, check the manufacturer's website for savings, such as copay cards, coupons, rebates, or patient assistance programs.
  • Ask your healthcare provider to prescribe a different statin that has a generic version, such as atorvastatin, rosuvastatin, or simvastatin.
  • Ask your healthcare provider and pharmacist for other personalized tips if you need help finding ways to save on your prescriptions.

Side Effects

Most drugs come with a laundry list of side effects. Chances are, you may only experience mild side effects, if any. However, some side effects can persist or become bothersome.

Take, for example, an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor (such as lisinopril), which is commonly prescribed for blood pressure. ACE inhibitors are known for causing a dry cough that can be unpleasant to many people. Your first inclination may be to stop taking the offending medication. However, the best course of action is to contact the healthcare provider as soon as possible so that an alternative, better-tolerated medicine can be prescribed.

Importantly, if you feel like you are experiencing a minor side effect, don't panic. Remember that you can communicate what you are experiencing to your healthcare provider, whether it's the healthcare practitioner who prescribed the medication or your local pharmacist. Often, they will be able to help guide you through the next steps.

Medication Adherence Tips

Now that you understand why medication adherence is important, how will you ensure you take your medications as prescribed?

Some helpful tips include:

  • Set a daily reminder on your phone.
  • Use an app to help you remember to take your medications. Some apps even let you set up reminder phone calls.
  • Use a weekly medication organizer to keep your medicines in order. This will also help you be proactive in knowing when you are about to run out of your medications so that you can call in refills to the pharmacy a few days early. This will account for delays, such as when a medicine has to be ordered.
  • Make it part of your routine by taking your medications at the same time each day. Ask your pharmacist if you can take all of your medications together. For example, say you have to take your thyroid medication in the morning on an empty stomach, but you can take the rest of your medications at night. You can create a routine where you take your thyroid medication as soon as you wake up (and eat breakfast an hour later) and take all your other medicines before you brush your teeth every night.

And remember, your healthcare team is there to help you. Don't be afraid to reach out to them with specific problems.

Pinpointing why you have trouble staying adherent can help you and your healthcare provider develop a more personalized solution. For example, you can ask for written instructions if you have trouble remembering your provider's advice. You can also make a list of medications you have not tolerated well in the past so that you can refer to this moving forward. And if you don't understand something, ask for clarification. You can take steps to take charge of your health.

Summary

Taking your medication as prescribed can affect your health both in the short-term and long-term. Some medical conditions are not associated with symptoms, especially in the early stages. It can help to understand why you take each drug so that you realize the importance of adhering to your medication regimen.

And if you're having trouble with adherence, remember there’s no need to feel embarrassed when talking to your healthcare provider about it. Be open and honest about why you are having trouble sticking to your regimen. It might just be a few minor adjustments—perhaps a less expensive drug or a lower dose—that will put you on your way to a healthier life.

Consult your healthcare provider if you have problems adhering to your regimen due to side effects, costs, or any other issues. They can help you work toward a solution.

A Word From Verywell

Taking medications may feel frustrating or unnecessary when you may not have symptoms. Know that your healthcare provider cares about your current and future health and is trying to prevent complications. Understanding why you are taking each medication can help you realize the importance of adherence.

Some people may find it hard to adhere to medication that causes side effects and may want to stop taking medicine. Instead, if you are having trouble sticking to your medication regimen for any reason, contact your healthcare provider. They will be more than willing to help you adjust your regimen to ensure you achieve your best health.

6 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. Iuga AO, McGuire MJ. Adherence and health care costs. Risk Manag Healthc Policy. 2014; 7:35-44. doi:10.2147/RMHP.S19801

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is blood cholesterol?

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be antibiotics aware: smart use, best care.

  5. Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker. Health Spending. How do prescription drug costs in the United States compare to other countries?

  6. Health and Human Services. Executive Summary. Comprehensive plan for addressing high drug prices: A report in response to the Executive Order on competition in the American economy.