How to get the most from your medicines

Most of us will take medicines at some point in our lives. For some of us this may be for a short period (days, months or a few years), for others medicines may be needed for the rest of our lives.

On this page, you can find the following information:

Get to know your medicines – ask questions

Knowing about your medicines can help you get the most benefit from them and avoid problems.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist the following questions:

  • Why am I taking this medicine?
  • When and how do I take it?
  • Are there are any special instructions?
  • How long I need to take the medicine for?
  • How do I tell if it’s working?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Will I need any tests during treatment and, if so, why?
  • What happens if I forget to take a dose?

Learn more about questions to ask about the medicines you are taking. 

Be prepared for side effects

All medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies, vitamins and supplements, can have side effects.

Not all people experience side effects, some are more common than others and not all side effects can be prevented. But recognising them, and knowing what to do if you have them, can prevent harm.

  • Side effects are more likely to occur within hours or days of starting a new medicine, as your body gets used to it. But some side effects may be delayed, and can appear after you've been taking the medicine for some time.
  • When you start a new medicine, ask about what side effects to look out for, anything you can do to ease them and any serious effects that require immediate medical attention.
  • On rare occasions medicine reactions can be serious or life threatening. Ask what serious side effects to look out for and when to seek immediate help. Read more about medicines and side effects.

Get your medicines reviewed regularly 

It’s a good idea to have all your medicines checked regularly, at least once a year, by your pharmacist or doctor. This is important because things may have changed. For example, your health status might have changed, you might have developed a side effect from the medicine or a medicine you are taking may no longer be necessary.   

Getting your medicines reviewed regularly is also important if you:

  • take a lot of different medicines
  • sometimes forget to take your medicines
  • are not sure why you take some of your medicines
  • think one or more of your medicines is not working for you. 

Keep an updated list of your medicines and supplements

Problems with medicines, like side effects and medicines reacting with each other (called interactions), can happen at any time. However, there are some times when they are more likely to happen, eg, when starting a new medicine or herbal remedy.

One of the best ways to prevent problems with medicines is to keep an updated list (called a ‘yellow card’) of all the medicines, supplements, drops and vitamins you are taking. Remember to include any medicine allergies. Show your card to everyone involved in your healthcare so they know what medicines you're taking. If you don't have a card you can create your own list using this template.

Read more about medicines – when problems occur and a medicine list. 

Make wise lifestyle choices

Be proactive and talk to your doctor about non-medicine options that can be used in conjunction with your medicines to improve your condition. For some conditions, healthy lifestyle habits such as quitting smoking, good nutrition, losing weight and being physically active can improve the chances that a medicine will be effective. For people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and many other conditions, medicines should be used in addition to lifestyle changes, not instead of them.

Talk to your healthcare team

If you have side effects or think your medicine is not working for you, don’t stop your medicines without talking to your healthcare provider first. Stopping some medicines suddenly can be harmful. Your doctor or nurse prescriber can discuss which option is best for you, such as lowering your dose or switching to another alternative.      

Learn more

Be medicine-smart – your guide to using medicines safely Health Navigator, NZ
Patient safety week Health Quality and Safety Commission, NZ

Credits: Health Navigator Pharmacists. Reviewed By: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist Last reviewed: 27 Jun 2022