The more you know about and understand your medicines, the more likely you are to take them safely.
On this page, you can find the following information:
- What is the name of my medicine?
- What is the medicine used for?
- When and how often do I take the medicine?
- Have my medications changed?
- How long do I need to take this medicine for?
- Does the medicine interact with medicines that I'm already taking?
- Will I need any tests or monitoring while I'm taking the medicine?
- What possible side effects can I expect?
When you are prescribed a new medicine, ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist questions to help you understand the key things you need to know. You may have lots of questions but here are a few examples to get you started.
You may not remember the name of your medicine, so it may be useful to write it down. You may want to write the name in a way that helps you remember, such as how it sounds to say it. For example, paracetamol can be written as pa-ra-see-ta-mol.
Many medicines have at least two different names:
- the brand name – this is created by the pharmaceutical company that made the medicine
- the generic name – this is the name of the active ingredient in the medicine.
For example, paracetamol is the generic name but different companies market paracetamol as Panadol®, Paracare®, Parafast® or Paracetamol (Ethics)®. You only have to know one name like paracetamol.
Find out what the medicine is used for and how it works. Some medicines can have many uses, so knowing why you have been prescribed the medicine is important.
Some medicines may work in your body for longer, so they only need to be taken once a day. Other medicines may work for a shorter time, so they may need to be taken more often, such as 2 or 3 times a day.
Some medicines may only need to be taken as needed for a reason, such as 'when needed for headache'. They do not need to be taken when you do not have a headache.
Keep track of changes to your medicines by asking your doctor, nurse or pharmacist “Have any medications been added, stopped or changed and why?”. This is particularly important at every doctor’s visit or if you have been discharged from hospital.
To help you keep track of changes to your medicines, keep an up-to-date list of your medicines. This medication list (also sometimes called yellow card) includes the name of the medicine, your dose, the time to take it, any special instructions and what it is used for. This list also includes any over-the-counter medicines you may buy, and any vitamins and herbal or dietary supplements you are taking.
Some medicines are taken for a short time, such as antibiotics. Other medicines may need to be taken for months to years. Here are some more questions to ask your doctor before you start taking the medication:
- Is the medicine for a short time or is it expected to be for life?
- If I feel better, can I just stop taking it?
- Do I need to slowly reduce the dose or can I just stop taking it?
Taking some medicines together may cause side effects or affect the way the medicine works in some way. This is called an interaction. Interactions can happen with prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal or natural remedies, food and alcohol or illegal drugs. Before you take a new medicine or supplement, always ask your pharmacist about any interactions.
To be sure that a medicine is working for you, that the dose is right, and/or that you do not have side effects, you may need monitoring or tests. For example, to know whether your blood pressure medicines are working, you will have your blood pressure monitored regularly, or to check that a medicine is not causing liver or kidney problems, you may need to have blood tests now and again.
While you may not be able to prevent all side effects, being prepared for what to expect can help. Before you take any medicine, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about:
- the common side effects to expect and how to deal with them
- how soon they may start
- if they may go away on their own
- if you need any tests to check for them
- what you can do to manage mild side effects
- when and who you should call for help with more serious side effects.
You can ask your pharmacist for a printout of information about your medicines and for an up-to-date list of what you have been prescribed. Read more about side effects.
In this video, Health Navigator consumer representative and cultural advisor Merle Samuels shares tips for managing your medicines.
(Health Navigator NZ, 2019)