Medication matters: 3 conditions where taking medication correctly can be life saving

Close up of man hand taking medicine

If you’ve watched a pharmaceutical commercial, you’ve heard the phrase: Take medication as directed.

It sounds easy. But when you factor in cost, side effects or even just forgetfulness, it’s something only half of patients do for chronic conditions. That can have life-threatening consequences.

“Medications for conditions like high blood pressure work best when taken consistently, over time,” says Dr. Jodie Kennedy, clinical pharmacist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Today, these medications will keep your blood pressure down. And controlling your blood pressure long-term could absolutely save your life 5 or 10 years down the road.”

Why does medication adherence matter?

Dr. Kennedy: Medication adherence, or taking medications correctly, prevents diseases from getting out of control.

If you have diabetes and you don’t get your blood sugar under control, you’re headed for complications. The disease will progress to its “end-stage” — or its most serious, life-threatening point — which means you can experience everything from kidney failure to loss of eyesight.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that taking medications correctly is an important part of preventing these worst case scenarios, especially when paired with lifestyle changes.

What are the most common reasons people don’t take medications the way they should?

Dr. Kennedy: There are many reasons: financial concerns, distractions, confusion over taking multiple medications. The issue I see most is when we’re treating problems you can’t feel, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar. If you don’t feel like you need medication, you may ask yourself, “why take it?”

Another big hurdle is misinformation. You may read something online or hear a story from a friend, and it scares you. We have so much information at our fingertips, and word of mouth has a big effect. The important thing to remember is that every person is different.

If something you read or hear scares you:

  1. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
    Your healthcare professionals should always be the first people you turn to for answers. Feel free to ask them what to do if this or that happens. Having a plan of action helps, even if you’re unlikely to ever need it.
  2. Remember that every person is different.
    Just because your friend had a side effect doesn’t mean that you will. Medications are required to list every possible side effect, but not everything happens to everybody.
  3. Check your sources.

It’s safe to get medical information from the American Heart Association or the American Diabetes Association. Your neighbor on social media? That’s a different story.

3 conditions where medication adherence matters most

1. Hypertension

Dr. Kennedy: Uncontrolled blood pressure is like a volcano building under the surface until it explodes. Medication stops that pressure from building.

The complications of uncontrolled blood pressure are extremely serious:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Eyesight problems

If you’re prescribed hypertensive medications: 

  1. Take medication at the right time.
    Some medications only work for a certain amount of time. If you’re supposed to take it every 12 hours but only do it at night, you’re only treating the problem half the day.
  2. Don’t stop taking your medication without talking to your provider. 

Some blood pressure medicines may lower heart rate. If you stop too soon or too quickly, your heart won’t know how to respond, which can cause dangerous spikes.

Blood pressure basics: understanding the numbers, risks & how to improve yours

2. Cholesterol

Dr. Kennedy: The same types of issues can arise with cholesterol medications, which are crucial to preventing heart attacks and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Since you can’t really feel when your cholesterol is high, you have to rely on tests to tell you. Think of it this way: How do you know when your car needs an oil change? Your check-engine light tells you. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t have those! Check-ups and tests are the only way we know what’s going on.

If you’re prescribed cholesterol medications: 

  1. Keep taking them!
    It really can be that simple. Don’t stop your medication for high cholesterol unless advised to do so by your doctor. If you don’t like a medication’s side effects, talk to your provider.
  2. Ask your doctor the best time of day to take them. 

Our bodies make cholesterol at night, so some medications are most effective when taken before bed. If the medication you’re prescribed doesn’t work for 24 hours, you may not be blocking cholesterol production at the right time.

Cholesterol 101: the good, the bad and how to tell the difference

3. Diabetes

Dr. Kennedy: Medications for diabetes are the most important to take correctly because not doing so can have a serious, immediate impact.

If you’re prescribed medications to control diabetes: 

  1. Understand how to take your medicine
    Ask your doctor or pharmacist how to take or inject your medicine properly.

    • Should you take your medicine with food?
    • What time should you take it?
    • What should you do if you miss a dose or a meal?
    • Can you take your pills for diabetes at the same time as your insulin?

These are important questions when it comes to diabetes because taking diabetes medicine incorrectly can make your blood sugar harder to control.

  1. Know the side effects
    It’s important to know if the medicines you take to control your blood sugar can cause dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Ask your doctor and pharmacist about side effects you may experience, and discuss the plan for treating low blood sugar with your doctor.

What’s the best way to stay on track with medications?

Dr. Kennedy: Try these 3 things:

1. Set reminders on your phone. 

There are also apps you can use if you have a complex medication schedule.

2. Use a pill box. 

These are good for people who aren’t tech savvy, but really for anyone because you can quickly glance at a day to see if you’ve taken your medication. And some pharmacies give them away!

3. Link medication to routine. 

Associate your medication with a habit you know you won’t forget. For example, if you need to take your pills on an empty stomach, set them next to your toothbrush. That way you can take them in the morning right when you get up, and by the time you’re ready, you’ll be clear to eat breakfast.

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

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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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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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).