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6 tips for taking your medication (and why it matters)

Taking prescriptions seems simple, but it can easily become complex when you’re dealing with several health challenges or a busy schedule. Add multiple medicines or dosages, and it’s no surprise that medication adherence is challenging for many Tennesseans.

WellTuned talked with BlueCross pharmacist Dr. Kristina Carter and registered nurse Ashley Morgan to learn more.

What are the most common reasons people don’t take their medications?

“It can be a number of things, from taking multiple prescriptions to simply forgetting,” says Morgan. “Most of the time it’s a combination of several factors.”

The most common obstacles are:

  • Taking multiple medications
  • Taking medications at different times of the day
  • Distractions from work, family, doctors’ appointments, etc.
  • Cognitive disability
  • Side effects (real or attributed)
  • Concerns about becoming addicted to or dependent on a medication
  • Lack of health literacy (understanding the condition or what the medication will do)
  • Misinformation from friends, family or social media
  • Financial concerns

“Sometimes patients don’t pick up their medication because it costs too much or they’re trying to ‘stretch out’ the dosage so it lasts longer,” says Dr. Carter. “That can lead to problems because there’s a reason the doctor prescribed a certain amount.”

Here are 3 reasons why communication between caregiver and patient is important:

  • If a patient doesn’t understand why they’re taking a medication or what it can do for them, it may not be important to them to keep taking it.
  • Conversely, a patient may take a medication expecting an immediate response, and if they don’t get it, they stop taking it and their condition never improves.
  • Medications can have side effects a patient doesn’t like, or patients may attribute side effects to a medication when those symptoms aren’t actually coming from the medicine.

“No matter what the concern is, you need to have a good relationship with your caregiver, provider or pharmacist so you can voice those concerns, ask questions and make changes if needed,” says Dr. Carter.

These days, patients also have to be careful of what they read online and on social media. False claims often look legitimate, and it’s easy to be swayed by stories from friends or family. But everyone’s body is different, and your doctor or pharmacist should always be your go-to source of information when you have questions.

What should you do when you miss a dose?

Call your doctor or pharmacist.

“We all forget things from time to time, but for conditions like diabetes, heart failure or high blood pressure, you have to be careful if you do forget to take your medication,” says Morgan. “With some medications you can take them right when you remember, some you can double up on with your next dose, and others you need to skip entirely. It’s always safest to call.”

What kinds of issues do people face when they stop taking a medication?

Stopping a medication abruptly may cause the condition to worsen. For example, stopping certain heart medications may cause a patient’s blood pressure to spike, which can cause heart problems or even a heart attack.

Each medication is different, so the symptoms that occur when stopping will vary. Withdrawal symptoms can range from a minor annoyance to a major complication and may include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Agitation
  • Seizures

“If you’re having problems with a medication, don’t just stop taking it,” says Dr. Carter. “Talk to your doctor or pharmacist so they can evaluate why it’s not working and talk about how you should stop taking it. Some have to be stopped gradually, and your caregiver will be able to help you formulate the best plan.”

If you’ve already stopped taking a certain medication on your own, let your doctor know.

“A lot of times patients think that if they don’t fill a prescription, their doctor will notice they’ve stopped taking it, but the reality is that doctors may have no idea,” says Morgan. “That means your doctor thinks they’re treating a condition when they’re not. Always let them know if you’ve stopped taking something so they can find safe, alternative therapies.”

Here are 6 tips for remembering to take medications:

1. Pre-fill your pill boxes

Pill boxes come in all shapes and sizes, and some even include alarms or auto-open functionality so it’s nearly impossible to miss a dose. But the standard pill box still gets the job done — especially if you pick one day a week to sit down and sort all your pills so you can easily see if you miss a dose.

2. Try pill packs

Many pharmacies and companies now offer pill-pack services where medications come prepared in batches, so all you have to do is open and take them. Some can even be delivered to your door. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to tell you which services they recommend.

3. Assign a behavior to taking medications

If your medication regimen is simple, you may be able to trigger your memory by associating a task with taking your medicine. Get into a routine of taking your medication after you get out of the shower or before you eat breakfast — just make sure the associated behavior is something you do every day.

4. Set timers, reminders or alarms

Phones, fitness trackers, alarm clocks and reminder apps are all great tools. Smart speakers like Alexa have also proven useful for patients who have memory challenges but want to live independently.

“If you have a smart speaker, say: ‘Alexa: remind me to take my medication at 6 p.m. every day,’ and set a timer that way,” says Morgan. “If you’d rather have alarms set up on your phone or computer but you’re not all that tech-savvy, ask your kids, co-workers or caregivers to help. Once the reminder is in there, you’re all set.”

5. Involve a family member or caregiver

Another good safeguard is to educate someone you live with or see every day. Ask your partner, caregiver or kids to get familiar with your medications so they can remind you to take them if you forget. If the pills have all been sorted at the beginning of the week, it will be easy for someone to glance at the box and know whether a dose has been missed.

6. Plan for interruptions

In the winter, it’s important to make sure you have enough medication to get you through the holidays when pharmacies are closed, or to account for bad weather when snow or ice might make it difficult to drive. Ask about getting a 90-day prescription or having medications delivered to your home to foolproof the process.

When you travel, make medication planning part of your routine:

  • Always take extra medication in case you get stuck somewhere
  • If you’re flying, keep medication in your carry-on and make sure it’s properly labeled
  • Keep a list of your medications in your wallet or on your phone

“Apple’s Health app allows you to input your health information and set it up so someone can get into just that part of your phone even when it’s locked,” says Dr. Carter. “That can be a lifesaving thing if an emergency happens.”

To learn more about traveling safely with medications, click here

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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