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There’s a reason each drug has its own set of directions. For example:
Time of Day? When you take a drug may make a difference if you and your doctor decide you need to feel the benefit of the drug at a certain time of day. Some drugs may also make you sleepy or keep you awake. I take one drug, for example, that makes me quite sleepy just about an hour after I take it. That wears off, of course, but getting sleepy when driving to work is not good! After asking my doctor, I switched to taking that one before bedtime.
How Far Apart? Drugs last different amounts of time in your body. Some break down and wear off quickly, while some can last a full day or longer. Taking your drug as directed helps prevent accidental overdose, or losing the benefit of the drug between doses. If you take multiple drugs that need to be taken at different times between doses, try a chart or alarms to help you keep track. If you forget a dose, check with your doctor or pharmacist if you should take it right away or just wait for the next dose.
With or Without Food (or Certain Foods)? At the same time that various drugs may be going through your body, so are any foods you eat. Some drugs must not be taken with very specific foods because of the ingredients in those foods. If your doctor says to take a drug with food, that may be to avoid an upset stomach. If they say to take on an empty stomach, the drug may have a harder time working if it is competing with your last snack or meal.
With or Without Some Liquids? Most people take pills with some form of drink to wash them down. Water is the safest choice, and some drugs should be taken with quite a bit of water to help them do their best work. There are some drugs, though, that should not be taken with specific types of drinks, particularly juices or dairy. So if you take your drugs in the morning, you may need to skip that orange juice or latte you are used to. If you take them at night, you may need to be careful about any alcohol you consume before or after your dose. With some drugs, you should avoid alcohol entirely.
With or Without Other Drugs (Including Over-the-Counter)? Looking back to the example of drugs competing with meals in our stomach, the same applies with other drugs. Some drugs are known to either cancel each other out or cause problems if they are taken too close together or together at all. Some drugs can be less effective if taken with other drugs that affect digestion, such as antacids.
How Much? Getting the right dose of a drug can be easy if you just have to take a certain number of pills. Yet some drugs like liquids or shots must be measured. The amount of drug you take is important because too little may not work, and too much can be toxic. Measuring cups often come with over-the-counter liquid drugs. Pharmacists can often provide a measuring cup or spoon with prescriptions.
Some months ago, during football season and the height of allergy season, my son got a sinus infection. Off to the doctor we went, and we came home with giant antibiotic pills. Getting a teenager to take giant pills is a lot easier than getting young children to take “pink goo,” the liquid that antibiotics for kids come in. Well, so I thought.
Several weeks later, he was clearing his throat a LOT. It turns out he stopped taking his antibiotic as soon as he “felt better.” If I’ve told my kids once I’ve told them a thousand times why it’s a BAD IDEA not to finish an antibiotic. First, you don’t take the drug long enough to completely kill the bacteria causing infection. Second, bacteria can learn their way around antibiotics.
My son’s choice to stop taking the antibiotics before he finished the course is just one example of ways people don’t take drugs “as directed.” Other people might not take their drug(s) as directed are:
If you are struggling with taking drugs as directed for any reason, you should ask for help. Your doctor or pharmacist may know of resources to help you pay for prescriptions, and they can explain how to manage your schedule, if you need one. And your family may be able to help you get organized.
Originally published January 21, 2016; Revised 2019
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