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Pharmacy and Medications Overview

Medicines have been used to help mankind ease suffering and promote healing for over 4,000 years. Over time, the ability to diagnose and treat diseases has steadily grown. Some of the greatest and most rapid advances in medicine have occurred in our lifetime, such as the discovery of antibiotics, insulin, and drugs to fight cancer, just to name a few. Today we have access to many medicines that protect and prolong life.

Along with more drugs being available to our health care professionals, the recent trend is to make more medications available directly to you – the consumer. Thus, medications which have been proven to be generally safe and effective as prescription drugs, are often becoming available over-the-counter at your local pharmacy.

With all of these advances come the benefits of better health and convenience. However, potential risks must always be considered along with possible benefits. Potential risks include increased side effects, drug-drug interactions, drug-food interactions, drug-disease interactions, unintentional overdoses, and self-medicating when a doctor should have been consulted.

Side Effects

In addition to its desired benefits, a drug may cause undesired, troublesome effects called “side effects.” It is important to know the possible side effects of a medicine and what to do if they occur. Many side effects are mild (like nausea) and may go away on their own. However, some drugs can cause more serious unwanted effects that require a change of medication or other medical attention.

Drug-Drug Interactions

When two or more drugs are taken together, an interaction may occur. This can affect the way the medications work in the body. Occasionally, two drugs should not be taken together at all. Other times, medicines can be used together even though an interaction is expected. However, special doses, precautions or other instructions from your health care professional may be necessary.

Food-Drug Interactions

Food can affect the way your medicines work. You should know if the best way to take your medicine is with or without food. Also, avoiding some foods completely may be necessary to prevent dangerous effects while taking certain drugs. For example, foods with high tyramine content (like some aged cheeses) should be avoided while taking antidepressants called MAO inhibitors.

Drug-Disease Interactions

Sometimes a medication prescribed or taken for one problem can make another problem worse. For instance, if you have high blood pressure, the decongestants found in many over-the-counter cold products can increase the blood pressure even further. Patients with active stomach ulcers or even a past history of stomach ulcers should generally avoid certain over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatories. However, in some cases your doctor may feel that the benefits of using a drug outweigh the potential risks. In these cases, changes in dose, monitoring or other special precautions may be advised.

It is very important that the doctor, pharmacist, and patient work together as a team to get the most benefit out of drug therapy. To lessen risks, patients must become an active member of their health care team. As a patient, you need to provide information about your medical problems and all of the medications that you take, including prescription and nonprescription drugs, as well as herbal products, vitamins and dietary supplements to each doctor or pharmacist you see. Keep a written, updated list to help remember all of this information.

Things you should write down and tell each of your health care providers:

  • Proper name of all current and past medical problems you have, including allergies (to what substances and what kind of reaction your have)
    • Include prior surgeries or previous hospital admissions and what you had done or were treated for
  • Name, strength, and dosage of all current prescription and nonprescription medications, including herbal products, vitamins and dietary supplements and how often you take each one
  • Reason you are using each current medication

This list should also be available to someone in your immediate family in case of a medical emergency.

You also need to know some things about each medication you are taking.

Things you should ask your doctor or pharmacist:

  • What is the name of the medicine (brand and generic names)?
  • Why am I taking this medication? What is the medication supposed to do for me? (Many medications can be used for different purposes.)
  • How and when do I take it? (For example, By mouth? With or without food? In the morning or at bedtime?)
  • How long should I take it? (For example, Until my symptoms go away? Until I finish the prescription? Possibly for the rest of my life?)
  • Are there any foods, beverages, or other medicines I should avoid when I take it? (For example, certain foods can decrease or increase the amount of drug available to the body; alcoholic beverages should not be taken with some drugs;  certain drugs can increase or decrease the activity of another drug; etc.)
  • Are there any activities I should avoid when taking this medicine? (For example, Driving? Exercising? Exposure to the sun? etc.)
  • What should I do if I miss a dose? (For example, Wait until my next scheduled dose? Take one dose now, then go back to my normal schedule? Are there other precautions I should take?)
  • What side effects might be expected when taking this drug? (Will I feel nauseated? Drowsy? Light-headed? etc.)
  • Are there things I can do to minimize the side effects?
  • When should I contact my doctor or pharmacist about a side effect or an unusual effect?
  • How might the medicine affect my daily life? (What if I have trouble remembering to take it at certain times? Will it affect my sex life? What if the medication is so expensive that I can’t get the prescription filled?) There may be other alternatives that could be tried.
  • How should the medication be stored? (For example, In the refrigerator? In a cool, dry place?, etc.)

Be prepared to write down the answers right away so you will remember all the details. You can also ask your health care professional if written information about the medicine is available. Most importantly, do not be afraid to talk with your doctor or pharmacist. ASK QUESTIONS, and if you don’t understand something, ask your health care provider or pharmacist to explain it. There is no such thing as a stupid question!

Knowing this information can help you be an active member of your health care team and get the most out of your medicines while minimizing potential adverse events!

This service is intended to help answer your questions about prescription and nonprescription drugs. It is not designed to replace your own health care professionals.

For more information on the proper use of medications:

U.S. Pharmacopeia

For more information:

Go to the Pharmacy and Medications health topic.