Taking Medications Correctly

Not following directions can have nasty consequences.

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
4 min read

Claudia was doing well. The Prozac she'd been prescribed was working to treat her depression. She was handling a high-stress job, enjoying life as a newlywed, and making progress in therapy.

Then she went to a birthday party for her boss. She knew alcohol was off-limits for people, like herself, on anti-depressants. "Alcohol is a depressant," her psychiatrist had warned. "It could counteract the Prozac."

But believing the consequences would be minor, Claudia (not her real name) ordered a margarita. By the time she'd finished a second one, she was drunk. And she was flirting with a woman. "I was a different person -- aggressive," she says.

The next day Claudia was too sick to work and had to cancel an appointment with her psychiatrist. Shocked and mortified by her own behavior, she shared the story with her doctor. That's when Claudia heard for the first time that Prozac, when mixed with alcohol, can make a person hypersexual and manic. "I wish I had known that to begin with," she says. "I would have stuck with water."

Claudia was lucky she was only left with a bruised reputation and a bad hangover. Taking prescription drugs in a wrong way can lead to serious problems -- even poisoning. According to a 1995 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, medicine-related illnesses cost $76 billion per year in increased hospital stays, lost wages, and death.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that as many as half the people taking medications at any given time are doing so incorrectly. Most of these people are only delaying their own recovery. But experts say that as medications like Prozac become increasingly sophisticated and more commonly prescribed, both doctors and patients need to be better educated on their proper use.

Women especially need to hear this message, says Audrey Sheppard of the FDA's Office of Women's Health. The agency is targeting women with a new public awareness campaign called "Take Time to Care." Statistics show that women make more trips to the doctor than men, use more medications, and are often the ones who administer medications to the children and the elderly in their families.

"There are a lot of ways that well-meaning people, even well-educated people, can goof," says Sheppard. "It's pretty common to not have enough time with your doctor. He or she may not take the time to go over how to take your medications," she says. Simple mistakes happen, such as not taking the time to read a label before popping a pill. "It's a lot easier to take your medicines wrong than right."

When it comes to improper use, are some medications more culpable than others? Yes, says Amy Law, M.D., an Oncologist at Tufts New England Medical Center. "Patients and their caregivers make the most mistakes with medications with which they feel the most comfortable," she says. Law says she can be fairly certain that her cancer patients will take their chemotherapy medications exactly as prescribed. "But," she says, "if I were to prescribe an antibiotic to a non-cancer patient, I can't be sure that they will take all 14 days of it."

Experts are also concerned about the continued use of over-the-counter medications and the growing popularity of dietary supplements. The FDA recommends that patients tell their doctors about any medications they may be taking. "So many people are taking so many things," says Sheppard.

And Americans can expect the problem to get even more complicated as more high-tech drugs enter the picture. "Neither patients nor their doctors know enough about the drugs being taken now," says Thomas J. Moore, a researcher at George Washington University Medical Center. "Drugs are sophisticated tools."

Moore -- author of Prescription for Disaster: The Hidden Dangers in Your Medicine Cabinet -- says the challenge is to encourage consumers to inform themselves, but without causing panic. "The public seems to have one of two extreme attitudes," Moore says. People either have blind faith in drugs, or are so scared of them they don't want to take any at all, he says.

Moore suggests a balanced approach that includes being a skeptical consumer, getting the facts, and talking with doctors. "A person should weigh the risks, but shouldn't pass up an opportunity to use a good tool."

  • Read warnings on the label.
  • Check the list of ingredients for things you may be allergic to.
  • Know the expiration date.
  • Don't skip doses -- know how much to take and how long to take it for.
  • Know which foods or beverages to avoid while taking any medicine.
  • Ask your health provider about side effects, and report any you experience.
  • Never share medicines.
  • Organize the medicines in your home.
  • Never take or give anyone medicine in the dark.
  • Keep a written record of medications each person is taking, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, and herbal and other dietary supplements.