Taking medicines safely and effectively
Make sure you know what your medicine is for
If you don’t know what your medicines are for, do not guess. Many medicines can be used for more than one condition.
Keep taking the medicine but talk to your doctor or ask your pharmacist about it. They will help you understand what you're taking, and they will be able to tell you if your doctor needs to change your prescription.
Make sure you understand the directions
The directions can be confusing, and it’s not always obvious what they mean. Examples of what they can mean are given on our more detailed taking medicines safely page.
If you aren’t sure, or if it says 'take as directed' and you cannot remember what you were told, check with a pharmacist or doctor about what you should do.
Find ways to help you remember to take medicines at the right time
It's all too easy to forget to take medicine. Find a memory jogger that works for you. For example:
- tie it to a daily routine like breakfast, after a shower or when you go to bed
- keep the medicines visible, put them somewhere linked to your routine (for example put an inhaler next to your toothbrush if you would use them at similar times)
- use a reminder chart, your pharmacy may be able to print you one off
- use technology. A smart phone, smart speaker or even an alarm clock can be used to give you a reminder!
Use tools and gadgets to help you
There are all sorts of low cost items to help you if you struggle with certain tasks. There are gadgets to help you to remember which pills to take and when, help to open blister packs, or to make it easy to use things like eye droppers.
Our equipment page has lots of examples to give you some ideas of what'’s out there.
If in doubt, ask a pharmacist!
Yes, we’ve already mentioned it, but community pharmacists are not just there to sell you things or hand you your prescription. They are there to help you if you have any questions about the medicines you take. Just ask them!
Frequently asked questions Back to top
- Yes. When a medicine is first invented, the company who invented it can call it what they like. This is usually referred to as brand name. Because they invented it, they have the right to be the only company allowed to make it for certain number of years. This is known as a 'patent'.
When the patent expires, other companies can make the same medicine and call it whatever they want. They usually use the name of the active ingredient and these are known as 'generic' medicines.
For example, Nurofen is a branded medicine and a supermarket's own label ibuprofen is a generic medicine. Both branded and generic medicines in the UK must be made to the same standards, otherwise they cannot be sold to the public. However, generic medicines are usually much cheaper than the branded medicines.
When buying medicines have a look on the packet of branded medicines to see what the active ingredient is. Then find the supermarket's or the retailer's own label which has the same name as the active ingredient. Sometimes, the two medicines won't look the same, for example the colour or shape of the tablet may be different. But if the generic (own label) medicine contains the same active ingredient in the same amounts as the branded medicine, then you can be sure that you are getting the same active medicine.
- Yes, it really does matter. Almost 1 in every 3 patients don't take their medicines properly, either because they don't realise it, or because they don’t think it matters.
But taking medicines wrongly can cause you harm. More than 1 out of every 20 people who get readmitted to hospital as an emergency are there because they did not take their medicines properly. Make sure you follow the instructions, and ask for help if you need it.
- There are a few things to look out for if someone you know isn't managing their medicines safely:
- containers emptying too quickly or slowly compared to directions on labels
- medicines getting lost
- containers all over house with no apparent system
- they seem unusually tired, dizzy, sick or confused
- having to order medicines more than once a month
If you think someone might need help, then show or tell them some of the information here, or better still, talk to your local pharmacist.
- If you have finished the treatment, or have out of date medicines in your home, don't hoard them! It is dangerous to the environment to put them in the bin or flush them down the toilet.
Just take old medicines back to your nearest community pharmacy. All pharmacies have a duty to take away waste medicine and dispose of it properly.
#DoingOurBit – What one thing can you do?
Visit your GP or pharmacist for a medicine review to make sure you or a loved one are taking the right medicines. If you have any old medicines, or medicines you don’t use, take them back to your local pharmacy - they may be able to re-use them to help someone else.