Making sense of your medicines

To get the best results from your medicines, it's important to use them as they are intended.

You need to:

  • Take the right amount of medicine at the right times, in the right way and for the right number of days. 
  • Get advice from your pharmacist or GP if you are having any side effects that bother you.
  • See whether your medicines are making you feel better or worse. If you're worried, tell your doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible.   
  • For medicines you have to take regularly, make sure you always have enough, especially at weekends, public holidays and when you're on holiday.

Always use medicines according to the instructions on the label on the packet, or as your doctor or pharmacist has advised you.

Read the patient information leaflet provided with the medicine, as it may answer some of the questions you have.

If you are concerned about anything in the leaflet, talk to your pharmacist. The doctor may have prescribed a medicine for a condition that is not listed in the leaflet.

If your medicines aren't used in the right way, you may not get the best out of them and they may even make you feel worse. Don't use them after their expiry dates, and never use other people's prescription medicines.

If you're ever unsure about how to use a medicine or you would like to ask a question about it, you can ask your local pharmacist. You don't need to book an appointment.

Find out more about how your local pharmacist can help you.

What to tell your doctor before they write your prescription

  • List any other medicines and pills you are taking or have taken, even those bought over the counter, including vitamins and supplements. Write them down before your appointment or bring the packaging with you to your appointment.
  • Give details of your symptoms, including when they started and what makes them better or worse.
  • Tell them if you have any allergies or intolerances, such as lactose intolerance.
  • Say whether you would prefer the medicine in liquid or tablet form – for example, if you have problems swallowing pills
  • Let your doctor know if you are thinking about stopping a medicine, or you're not taking a medicine you have been prescribed or not taking it as instructed. 
  • If you're unsure about how to use your medicine, ask. For example, some people find asthma inhalers difficult to use.
  • Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you can't take your medicine because, for example, you can't open the child-proof packaging or it's difficult for you to take it at the same time each day.
  • Say if you are worried or concerned about any side effects you may be experiencing.

Shared decision making (SDM) is the conversation that happens between you and your doctor so you can reach a decision about your treatment together.

As part of this conversation, your doctor may suggest using a patient decision aid with you. This is a tool designed to help you weigh up the risks and benefits of different treatments, depending on your health, lifestyle and preferences.

See more about shared decision making.

Self-management plans explained

If you have a long-term condition, your doctor may suggest using a self-management plan. The plan normally covers every aspect of your medicines, including what they are for, when to take them, when to get advice, and what important side effects to look out for.

If you are not happy about using a self-management plan once the details have been explained to you, you can say so. Just explain why you're not able or don't want to use it.

What to ask about your medicines

This is a list of things you may want to ask your doctor before they prescribe a medicine for you. A pharmacist or other health professional may also be able to answer these questions. You may like to print these out and take them with you for your appointment.

  • How often should my medicines be reviewed?
  • Who sees the information about what medicines I'm taking?
  • Will the information about my medicines be kept confidential?
  • What are the benefits of using a self-management plan?
  • Can you tell me more about using a patient decision aid?
  • How do I report a side effect that is really worrying me, or a bad reaction to a medicine?
  • What do I do if I think I no longer need a medicine?
  • Who do I speak to if I want to stop taking a medicine?
  • What do I do if I think a mistake has been made with my medicines?

What to ask your pharmacist about new medicines

  • Check whether you can continue to use over-the-counter medicines, such as painkillers or indigestion tablets. In some cases, these can affect your prescribed medicines.
  • Check how the medicine should be stored and for how long. For example, some liquid medicines need to be kept in the fridge.
  • If you have difficulty remembering when to take your medicines, ask your pharmacist to write you a daily timetable.
  • Check how and when the medicine should be taken – for example, whether it should be taken at the same time, before or after meals, and whether certain foods affect the medicine.

If you are prescribed a medicine for a long-term condition for the first time, you may be able to get extra help from your pharmacist through the New Medicine Service.

Common questions about medicines

Pharmacist Sunita Behl answers some frequently asked questions about medicines you might have at home.

Are there any differences between brand-name medicines and their generic equivalents? For example, between Nurofen and ibuprofen?

"There's absolutely no difference in the active ingredients. The ibuprofen in a brand-name medicine is the same as the ibuprofen in a non-branded one. If you're not sure about what's in a brand-name medicine, read the active ingredients, which will be listed on the packaging. You can always ask your pharmacist for help."

I'm not sure about giving medicine to my children. Can you help?

"Always ask the advice of a pharmacist if you are unsure about how to use medicines for your children. This is really important. If children are given the wrong medicine or the wrong amount, this is likely to affect them more than adults.

"Always get the advice of a pharmacist or doctor about which medicine is most suitable for your child. The amount of active ingredients they contain is specific to a child's body, weight and age. Children may also find it easier to take medicine in a liquid form, but always ask your child what they would prefer. 

"You can get some liquid medicines in individual sachets. These can be useful for when you're out and about. 

"With my own young children, I use an oral syringe to give them liquid medicines. You can accurately measure out smaller doses, and it's easy to get the medicine into their mouth without spilling any.

"Do read the leaflet when using an oral syringe. If the medicine is squirted too quickly, it can make children cough and splutter, and they may not get the right amount.

"Never give a child aspirin because it may contribute to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal childhood condition."

See more about medicines for children.

I have trouble opening child-proof containers. Can I get my medicines in other containers?

"Some types of packaging can be difficult to open. Your pharmacist may be able to dispense your medicines in different containers. Ask them what they can offer. Child safety is the biggest concern, so always store medicines in a place where children can't see them or get at them."

Where should I store medicines?

"The bathroom cabinet is one of the worst places to keep medicines because it can be warm and damp. Medicines should always be kept in a cool, dark place because exposure to heat and light can result in them not working as they should. The best place is a lockable cabinet out of the sight and reach of children, away from heat and moisture.

"Some medicines need to be kept in the fridge. If this is the case, it will be written on the packet or instruction leaflet. Again, keep these out of the sight and reach of children, perhaps at the back of the fridge.

"It's best to keep medicines in their original packaging, with the instruction leaflet still inside the packet. Be aware that medicines, like food, have an expiry date. Never take a medicine after it has expired." 

Is it possible to get medicine labels and instructions in large print for older people or the visually impaired?

"Your pharmacist may be able to put large-print labels on the medicine if you ask. You can always ask them to talk you through the instructions as well."

I feel my medicines aren't working for me. Who can I speak to?

"If you have any concerns about your medicines, speak to your pharmacist first. If they can't help or they think that you need to see your doctor, they will advise you to do that. There's no need to make an appointment to see your pharmacist, and they may be available in the evenings and at weekends.

"Pharmacists are experts who are qualified to give advice on the safe use of medicines. Your pharmacist may suggest a medication review or medicines use review (MUR), which is a detailed review of all the medicines you are taking, whether prescribed or bought over the counter. The feedback is sent to your GP, who can then take any necessary action."

If I complete a course of medicines and have some left over, what should I do with them?

"Never throw unused or expired medicines in the rubbish bin or flush them down the toilet. Children could take the medicine from the bin, and medicines that have been flushed down a toilet could end up in the drinking water system or harm the environment. Take unwanted medicines to a pharmacy, where they can be disposed of safely."

Find more common medicines questions and answers.

Page last reviewed: 16/05/2015

Next review due: 16/05/2017

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