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Why Skipping Meds Is Bad, and How to Keep a Schedule

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 18, 2021

Missing a dose or two of your medications may not seem like a big deal. Americans fail to follow their doctor or pharmacist’s instructions about half the time.

Sometimes the skipped doses cause no obvious problems. But many medications won’t work right if you don’t take them when and the way you’re supposed to.

Problems It Can Cause

Forgetting or skipping your meds can affect you in ways you might not expect. That’s especially true if you skip multiple doses.

You may miss the best window of time. Some pain medicines for arthritis work best if you treat your symptoms before they start. Otherwise, your pain flare-ups may be harder to tamp down. If you have asthma, using your inhaler too late means you may not prevent irritated airways and the symptoms that follow.

Your treatment might fail. If you don’t finish your antibiotics, your infection might last longer or even come back. Then you may need a longer drug course or more powerful antibiotics. Incomplete treatments also may make you resistant to antibiotics, so take all your prescribed pills even if you feel better.

You might feel “withdrawal” effects. Antidepressants, for example, may work by triggering chemical changes in your brain. If you miss a dose or quit altogether, the sudden chemical shifts can lead to symptoms like:

Your disease may get harder to treat. If you skip your HIV medication, it may allow your virus strain a chance to gain resistance to the treatment. That will make your infection harder to control.

You might face serious complications. If you don’t take your blood pressure pills for your heart as prescribed, it could raise your chances of a heart attack, a stroke, kidney failure, or other complications. Even OTC drugs can be dangerous to skip. If your doctor told you to take aspirin every day after a heart attack or a stroke, quitting may make your condition “rebound” and cause another heart attack.

What to Do if You Miss a Dose

The answer depends on the type of medication you’re taking. For some drugs, your doctor may tell you to take your medication as soon as you realize you missed a dose. For other drugs, you may be told to just to skip past the missed dose and pick up with the next one.

If you don’t know what to do, first call your doctor or pharmacist. If you can’t get a hold of them, the information that came with your medication may have answers.

There are also some general rules that apply to missed doses:

If it’s been less than 2 hours since your missed dose, go ahead and take it. Then keep taking later doses as usual.

If it’s been more than 2 hours since your missed dose, the answer depends on how often you take your medication:

  • If you usually take it once or twice a day, it’s probably safe to take it as long as your next dose isn’t for another few hours. Don’t do this with insulin.
  • If you take it three or more times a day, it’s usually safe to wait and take your next dose at the regular time.

 

Tips to Help You Stay on Schedule

Sometimes, it isn’t just forgetfulness that keeps you from taking your medications as your doctor prescribed. It may be because your drugs are messy or inconvenient. Or they cost too much. Or you always run out of pills before you can get refills.

Here are some ways to make smart choices to help you stick to your medication schedule.

Pick the best formula for you. Some medications come in different formulas like a pill, a liquid, spray, or something else. If you don’t like to swallow pills, ask if the drug comes as a chewable tablet or syrup. If you dislike the taste of medicine, a pill that you wash down with a glass of water may be the way to go. Your doctor or pharmacist can explain your options and help you pick the best one.

Check for a cheaper option. Even with insurance, the cost of your medication -- especially if you have to take a lot or for a long time -- may make it hard for you to stick with your treatment. For many drugs, the generic version may work just as well as the name brand for much less money. Ask your doctor if you can switch.

If your drug isn’t available as a generic or if your doctor recommends only the branded version, ask for free samples or discount coupons. Many drugmakers supply coupons to doctors’ offices or have them on their websites. Check with your pharmacist about any discounts before you fill the prescription.

Combine pills. It may be easier to take one pill that packs two or more medications. Some high blood pressure drugs come in triple combinations that you can take in a single dose.

Take it less often. It’s usually easiest to remember to take your medicine if you have to do it just once a day. Ask your doctor if you have a choice about dosage or other decisions that can affect when and how often you take your prescription drugs.

Ask for a longer supply. It may be hard for you to visit your pharmacy once a month, or at all. Many insurance plans let you order 3 months’ worth of medications at a time. You can also have them delivered by mail, sometimes with free shipping.

Know when to quit. You need to take some medications, like pain relievers, only until you feel better. Other drugs, like antibiotics, must be taken until you finish the course. Ask your doctor what you’re supposed to do. Follow the directions so your treatment can work.

Talk to your doctor. You’ve heard this many times. Your doctor’s job is to help you feel better, and you should feel free to talk to them about any worries and questions. Leave informed.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

FDA: “Why You Need to Take Your Drugs as Prescribed or Instructed,” “Are You Taking Your Medication as Prescribed?” “Be An Active Member of Your Healthcare Team,” “Generic Drugs: Questions & Answers.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Skipping Your Meds?”

Mayo Clinic: “Daily aspirin therapy: Understand the benefits and risks,” “Antidepressant withdrawal: Is there such a thing?”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “When You’re Taking Heart Medicine.”

American Heart Association: “Medication Adherence - Taking Your Meds as Directed.”

Kaiser Permanente: “IV Antibiotics in the Non-Hospital Setting.”

KidsHealth.org: “What If My Child Doesn’t Take His or Her Asthma Medication?”

American Diabetes Association: “DKA (Ketoacidosis) & Ketones.”

American Medical Association EdHub: “Medication Adherence: Improve the health of your patients and reduce overall health-care costs.”

NPS MedicineWise (Australia): “Questions to ask your doctor about all medicines.”

MedlinePlus: “Taking Medicines: What to ask your doctor.”

ConsumerMedSafety.org: “Get Financial Help With Purchasing Medicine.”

National Health Service (U.K.): “Types of Medicines,” “Problems Swallowing Pills.”

Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Medication Adherence: WHO Cares?”

Harvard Health Publishing: “A Spoonful of Motivation Helps The Medicine Go Down.”

FPM: “Practical Ways to Improve Medication Adherence.”

JAMA: “Fixed Low-Dose Triple Combination Antihypertensive Medication vs Usual Care for Blood Pressure Control in Patients With Mild to Moderate Hypertension in Sri Lanka.”

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