Every year more than 2000 New Zealanders are admitted to hospital because of accidental poisoning. Following some basic safety tips with your medication can help prevent this from happening.
Accidents and other problems with medicines may arise from:
- using a different bottle to store medicines
- not taking medicines as prescribed
- children finding medicines that belong to their parents or grandparents and taking them.
Here are 10 simple tips for when using medicines, to keep you and everyone safe.
1. Read and follow the directions on the label
Take your medicines as directed on the instructions printed on the label or packaging. Do not take more than the prescribed dose. If your dose is not working, check with your doctor or pharmacist. Some medicines have special instructions that need to be followed to reduce or avoid side effects. For example, take with food, or on an empty stomach, or avoid alcohol.
When you collect a new medicine, ask your pharmacist to explain it to you, including the best time to take it and whether there are any special directions for use. Read the label before you start the treatment. If you are not sure about anything, it’s okay to ask questions.
2. Keep medicines in the original containers
Dispensed medicines leave the pharmacy in containers labelled with the name of the person who is to take them, the dose and how often to take them.
Many medicines are foil packed. Keep them stored in the foil until you need to take them. Foil packaging slows down the number of tablets that children can take quickly if they find them. Foil packaging also protects medicines from damage caused by humidity.
If you find foil packs difficult to open, your pharmacist can check the medicine and decide whether it's safe to pop the tablets out into a labelled container for you. Don't pop them out yourself at home and put them into an old pharmacy bottle – someone may take them, not realising they are not the same as the tablets on the label. Never put medicines into food or drink containers.
3. Easily manage your medicines – get your pills packed
If you are taking a few medicines or can’t always remember which medicine to take when, you can ask for your medicines to be dispensed in a handy calendar pack by your pharmacy. These are often called blister packs or Medico Packs. Your morning, noon and night doses can be pre-sorted for you by the pharmacist into clear plastic bubbles – one for each time of day. This makes it safer and easier for you.
4. If your medicines look different
If your medicines look different to your last supply, always check with your pharmacist. Medicines are often sold under more than one brand name and may look different but it’s always best to check and be sure.
5. Buying non-prescription medicines
Sometimes one medicine can mix badly with another in your body, and this can change how strongly the medicines work or whether they have side effects. This is called an interaction. It can also happen when medicines mix with certain foods or drinks (including alcohol). When buying medicines that are not on prescription, such as over-the-counter medicines from a pharmacy or supermarket and complementary medicines such as herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, always check with your pharmacist about possible interactions. Some can have some risks and side effects and may interact with some medicines. Your pharmacist can check whether the medicine is safe to take or whether there is a safer one. If you are already taking medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist to check whether there are any interactions with your new medicine.
6. Swallowing difficulties
If you have problems swallowing your tablets or capsules, you shouldn't chew, crush or break tablets or pills, or open and empty powder out of capsules, unless your GP or another healthcare professional has told you to do so. Some tablets, pills and capsules don't work properly or may be harmful if they're crushed or opened.
7. Store medicines in a cool dry place, unless instructed otherwise
Most medicines can be kept at room temperature. However, some need to be stored in the fridge or have special storage conditions. Don't keep medicines in the fridge unless the label says so as you may destroy the medicine.
The bathroom is not a good place to store medicine. The steam and humidity from baths and showers can stop them working as well as they should. If you notice that any pills are moist and powdery, show them to your pharmacist before using them. They may have been damaged by moisture or changing temperatures.
8. Medicines you should not take
It is sometimes easier to just use medicines that you have at home, but you should not take medicines:
- prescribed for someone else.
- that are past their use by date.
- that were prescribed for you months or years ago, even if you have the same condition now.
If you have new symptoms or need medication, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
9. Dispose of unwanted medicines regularly and safely
Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list – if you have leftover medicines, take them to your pharmacy for safe disposal. Don't get rid of medicines in rubbish bags, bins or down the toilet. This can cause problems elsewhere.
Read more about how to dispose of unwanted medicines properly.
10. Keep medicines out of reach of children
It may be easier to keep medicines in drawers and on benchtops, but it takes only a few minutes for toddlers and young children to help themselves. Young children have no idea about medicines – to them they look like lollies.
The best place to keep medicines is in a high locked cabinet. If this is not possible, keep them in a place that is hard for children to see and reach. Remember that children over the age of 2 can be expert climbers!
All medicines can be dangerous, especially in overdose. Just because you can buy a medicine such as paracetamol in the supermarket, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to take or that you can take more than directed.
If you think a child or someone who is in the house has taken a medicine that is not for them, call the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766 for advice, or call 111 for an ambulance. They will tell you what to do. If you have to take a child to hospital, take the medicine and the container with you. This will give the hospital good information about the medicine.
Medication safety Health Quality and Safety Commission, NZ
Patient guide for safe use of medicines (English), (Chinese), (Korean) SafeRx, Waitematā DHB, NZ
Dispose of unwanted medicines properly (D.U.M.P) SafeRx, Waitematā District Health Board, NZ
Use of medicines in New Zealand Health Quality and Safety Commission, NZ