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Prescription Medicines

Topic Overview

There are many types of prescription medicines used to help people manage their health. Your doctor and your pharmacist are your best sources to learn about your prescription medicines.

Guidelines for taking every kind of prescription medicine could fill a whole shelf of books. This topic gives you basic information about antibiotics, minor tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.

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Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Insomnia: Should I Take Sleeping Pills?

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria. But they only work against bacteria. They don't kill viruses, so they won't work against a cold, the flu, or another viral illness. Unless you have a bacterial infection, it's best to avoid the possible harmful effects of antibiotics, which may include:

  • Side effects. Antibiotics can cause nausea and diarrhea and can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Most of these common side effects are mild. But some side effects, such as allergic reactions, can be severe. They can cause shortness of breath or even death. If you have an unexpected reaction to an antibiotic, tell your doctor.
  • Other infections. Antibiotics kill most of the bacteria in your body that are sensitive to them, even the "good" bacteria that help your body. Antibiotics can ruin the balance of bacteria in your body, leading to an upset stomach, diarrhea, a vaginal infection, or other problems.
  • Bacterial resistance. If you take antibiotics when you do not need them, they may not work when you do need them. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to have some bacteria that the medicine doesn't kill. Over time, these bacteria change and become harder to kill. They become resistant to the medicine. The antibiotics that used to kill them no longer work.

If you and your doctor decide that you need an antibiotic, carefully follow the instructions for taking the medicine.

  • Take the whole dose for as many days as your doctor tells you to, unless you have side effects you did not expect (in which case, call your doctor).
  • Be sure you know any special instructions for taking the medicine. They should be printed on the label, but it’s also a good idea to check with your doctor and pharmacist.
  • Keep antibiotics in a cool, dry place. Check the label to see if you should store them in the refrigerator.
  • Never give an antibiotic prescribed for one person to someone else.
  • Do not save any extra antibiotics. And do not take one prescribed for another illness unless your doctor tells you it is okay. Ask your pharmacist about how to safely throw away your leftover medicine.

For more information, see the topic Using Antibiotics Wisely.

Minor Tranquilizers and Sleeping Pills

Some minor tranquilizers (such as Valium and Xanax) and sleeping pills (such as Ambien and Sonata) are widely prescribed. But these medicines can cause problems such as memory loss, addiction, and loss of balance. In rare cases, people who use them have done things like drive or eat while they're still asleep. These medicines also can cause a serious allergic reaction. So it’s important to use them with caution.

Minor tranquilizers can be useful if you use them for a short time. But long-term use often isn't very helpful, and it increases the risk of addiction and mental problems.

Sleeping pills may help for a few days or a few weeks. But if you use them for more than a month, they are likely to cause more sleep problems than they solve. For other options, see the topic Insomnia or Sleeping Better.

If you have been taking minor tranquilizers or sleeping pills for a while, talk with your doctor. Ask if you can stop taking the medicine or if you can gradually take less of it over time. If you have felt unsteady or dizzy, have had any memory loss, or have had signs of an allergic reaction, tell your doctor.

Click here to view a Decision Point.Insomnia: Should I Take Sleeping Pills?

Medicine Problems

There are many kinds of bad reactions (adverse reactions) to medicine.

Side effects. A side effect is any effect other than the one you want. They tend to be mild, but they can still bother you. In some cases, side effects can be serious.

Allergies. Some people have strong reactions to some medicines. These reactions can be deadly. To learn the signs of an allergic reaction, see the topic Drug Allergies.

Medicine interactions. These happen when two or more medicines or herbal supplements mix in a person's body and cause a bad reaction. The symptoms can be severe and may be wrongly diagnosed as a new illness.

Medicine-food interactions. These happen when medicines react with food. Some drugs work best when you take them with food, but others should be taken on an empty stomach. Some medicine-food interactions can cause serious symptoms.

Overmedication. If you take too much of a medicine, it may trigger an adverse reaction. This can especially be a problem for people of small size and older adults. Sometimes the typical adult dose is too much for these people. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.

Addiction. Long-term use of some medicines can lead to dependency. You may have a severe reaction if you stop taking the medicine all at once. Find out from your doctor if a medicine may be addictive. To learn more, see the topic Alcohol and Drug Problems.

Decision Points are designed to guide you through key health decisions, combining medical information with your personal information to make a wise health decision. For help in learning the pros and cons of certain medicines, see a list of Decision Points About Medicines.

Getting Rid of Old or Unwanted Medicine

No matter what type of medicine you take, make sure to follow your doctor's advice about how to take it. And find out the safest way to throw away medicines that are expired or no longer used. Use these drug disposal tips to help prevent people and animals from taking medicines that aren't intended for them:

  1. Find out if your local trash and recycle center offers a medicine take-back program. Ask your pharmacist if he or she knows of one. This is the best way to safely throw away medicines.
  2. If there is not a take-back program near you, follow these steps to throw away medicine with the rest of your garbage:
    • Mix medicine with a substance that doesn't taste good, such as cat litter, sawdust, or coffee grounds. Do not crush tablets or capsules.
    • Place the mixture in a container, such as a sealed plastic bag.
    • Put the container in your household trash.

Only a few medicines should be flushed down the sink or toilet if you can't use a take-back program. To see a list from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, go to www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm#MEDICINES.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Fax: (215) 914-1492
Web Address: www.consumermedsafety.org
 

This website is hosted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a nonprofit organization. You'll find tips about how to prevent medicine errors at home, at the hospital, and at the pharmacy. You can sign up for safety alerts about your medicines, and you can report medicine safety concerns.


Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Consumer Health Information
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD  20993
Phone: 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332)
Web Address: www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/default.htm
 

This website has health information for people of all ages. Topics include the following: medicines, food and nutrition, medical devices, cosmetics, and animal health. Spanish materials are also available.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Lorig K, et al. (2006). Managing your medicines. In Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions, 3rd ed., pp. 239–253. Boulder, CO: Bull.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2011). Disposal of unused medicines: What you should know. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm#MEDICINES.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Last Revised March 9, 2012

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