General Information about Using Medications Safely

Man taking Medicine Image

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), medications may be approved for consumers when research shows that the expected benefits outweigh the known risks when the drug is used as directed. However, the FDA cautions that no medication is 100 percent safe.

If you take prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medication(s), dietary supplements, or other products like herbal remedies, it's important to work with your health care team - doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others - to help maximize drug benefits and minimize risks and adverse effects.

The FDA offers the following SAFER tips for using medications:

  • Speak Up
  • Ask Questions
  • Find the Drug Facts
  • Evaluate Your Options
  • Read Drug Labels & Follow Directions

Speak Up

Communication - between you and your health care provider(s), and among the various members of your health care team - is an important part of good medical care. Never start taking a new medication without first discussing it with your health care team.

Provide information about your personal and family medical history - illnesses, ongoing medical conditions (e.g., arthritis, diabetes, hypertension), allergies, etc. - with your health care team, and make sure your health care providers know about all medications (prescription and over-the-counter) you currently take or have taken in the past.

Keep an up-to-date list of all medicines and supplements you take - as well as the doses - and share it with close family members and caregivers, and with your health care team. Include information about the following:

  • Prescription medications, including any drug samples you’ve been given
  • Over-the-counter medications like pain relievers, antacids, laxatives, and cough/cold relievers
  • Dietary supplements like vitamins and minerals, and herbal remedies
  • Past adverse drug reactions, known drug allergies, and past or present alcohol or illicit drug use
  • Other factors that may affect your medication use, such as pregnancy/breastfeeding, having a hard time remembering to take medicine, difficulty picking up or paying for prescriptions, trouble swallowing pills, etc.

Ask Questions

It may be helpful to write down questions you have for your health care team about your medications and to bring a family member or friend with you to your appointments to help you remember information that is discussed. If instructions about your medication(s) aren’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask your health care provider to explain again.

When it comes to medication safety, the following questions may be helpful:

  • What is the brand name/generic name of my medicine?
  • What are the active/inactive ingredients?
  • Why are you recommending or prescribing this medicine?
  • How long should it take for this medication to work?
  • Is there anything (e.g., foods, activities, other substances) I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • What are the possible side effects? What should I do if I experience adverse effects?

In addition to the questions above, also make sure you understand how to store and take your medication safely and that you follow all directions carefully.

Find the Facts

Learn as much as you can about prescription or over-the-counter medications - before you begin taking them. Talk to your health care team about possible interactions, adverse reactions you’ve had in the past, and about how to avoid problems like drug tolerance, dependence, or addiction (if applicable to the specific medication).

Make sure you’re clear about your medication dosage and scheduling - including what to do if you miss a dose - how to take the medicine (e.g., in the morning or at night, with food or on an empty stomach, how long to take it, etc.) Also be sure to talk about the cost of the medication and the process for refilling your prescription.

In addition to your health care providers and pharmacy, the Internet, the drug manufacturer, and a library or bookstore are good sources for consumer drug information.

Evaluate Your Options

Once you have as much information as possible about a recommended prescription or OTC medication, think carefully about your different options and choices. Weigh the expected benefits and potential risks associated with the particular medicine, and discuss any remaining questions or concerns with your health care provider(s).

Read Drug Labels & Follow Directions

Read the drug facts label carefully each and every time you buy an over-the-counter product or refill a prescription. Before leaving the pharmacy, make sure you have the right medication, that the dosage is correct, and that you’re clear about how/when to take it. If you notice any difference in your prescription(s) - including the drug packaging or the medication shape, size, color, or taste - notify your pharmacist or health care provider immediately.

Before taking any prescription medication, check to make sure it is:

  • The correct medicine
  • Prescribed for the right patient
  • The correct dosage/amount
  • The correct schedule/timing
  • Taken correctly (e.g., swallowed instead of chewed, etc.)

Always take medications as directed - for example, finish antibiotics even if you’re already feeling better, and taper some medications (like corticosteroids) rather than discontinuing them abruptly. Never stop taking a medication or change the dosage without talking to your health care provider first.

If you don’t get the expected results from your medication or experience adverse side effects, contact your health care provider. It may be possible to try another drug or adjust your dosage to improve your results and your treatment.

Remember: reduce medication risks and increase benefits by remaining an active, informed member of your health care team.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 05 May 2014

Last Modified: 11 Aug 2014