In the 1920s there were a few hundred drugs available. Now, almost 100 years later, the numbers are well into the tens of thousands of medications available. Knowing what you take, when and why is important when talking to any of your providers. Following these handy tips can help you become an expert with your own medications.
1. Keep track of your medications – including OTC and supplements
The simple fact is you need to have, preferably at all times, your medication list handy. In our technology world, you could have it listed in an app or stored on your smartphone in a note. You could also go the old-fashioned route and have it tucked in your wallet on a sheet of paper. This allows for a quick copy to be handed over to any provider, emergency room staff or medical professional.
While you might not think they are important, both over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements are important to keep track of. If you take something more than once a week, write it down. Even occasional medications such as pain medication, acid reflux or sleep aids should be written down.
Herbal remedies, supplements, vitamins and even essential oils (if they are ingested) should be on your list. Many prescription medications can have reactions with any of these. Have surgery planned? Some of these can make a difference on your bleeding risk and your surgeon might need you to stop taking them days or weeks before surgery.
2. Know the Brand vs. Generic names
This is probably the most confusing part of medications – all the names. Since medications take years to develop, most start with using the “brand” name for name recognition and marketing use (think “Kleenex” for tissues, or “Cheerios” for toasted oat cereal, or “Tylenol” for acetaminophen). For medications, the brand name starts with a capital letter, and when used with the generic name is usually placed first.
Let’s use a common medication, metoprolol tartrate. This is the generic name, and yes, it has two parts to it. If your medication has two parts to the generic name, write them both down. The brand name for metoprolol tartrate is Lopressor. Either one is appropriate to use, but you need to be aware of both names. There is also a medication called metoprolol succinate, with the brand name Toprol-XL. The difference between these two medications? How often you take it during the day. This is why knowing both parts of the generic name is important.
Another reason you want to be aware of both medication names is you do not want to take the same medication at the same time. If you have multiple providers, and one decreased your Lopressor to 25mg twice a day, but you have at home metoprolol tartrate 50mg twice a day and don’t realize this is the same medication, you’ll be taking more than you should.
3. Dose & Frequency
Now that you have your medication names, the next important bit of information is what dose you take and how often you take it. Your routine might be to take “one pill every morning”, however, most medications are available in different dosing amounts. So, depending on the dose you have that means your dose could be a 25mg tablet or a 100mg tablet of medication.
Going back to the example of metoprolol tartrate and metoprolol succinate, the main difference between the two medications is how often, or the frequency, you take it. Metoprolol succinate is taken once a day (usually). Metoprolol tartrate is taken twice a day (think T = tartrate = twice).
It is important to know the dosing even with medications you take intermittently, such as pain medications. For example, Tylenol (acetaminophen) can come in 325mg or 500mg tablets. Depending on the dose for this medication, this determines how often you can take it safely. For acetaminophen, you can take either 650mg total every four hours, or 1000mg every six hours.
If you are in the hospital, each and every time you are given a medication it should be explained to you. Your nurse should tell you each medication and its use before you take it. Keep in mind, if you are in the hospital your pills will probably look different. If you normally take three pills in the morning, and five pills at night, that number could also change. Not because you will are taking more types of medications, but because you might take a 30mg tablet at home, and at the
4. Know why YOU are taking each medication
There are many reasons a medication can be prescribed. When you start taking a new drug, your provider should explain exactly what the goals and reasons behind having you take this new medication. Make certain you write down the “why” next to the medication on your list.
Take our example above, Lopressor (metoprolol tartrate), a common heart medication. Many people take this medication to control high blood pressure (also referred to as hypertension). There are many other reasons a provider can prescribe this medication. It can be used as part of a treatment plan after having a heart attack (even without high blood pressure present), for patients with congestive heart failure, and to help prevent migraines. It also can be used for those with elevated, or fast heart rates.
Knowing why you are taking metoprolol tartrate is key, especially if you do not have high blood pressure. If you were to head to an emergency room, or visit a specialist, don’t let them assume that you have high blood pressure just because of the medication you are on.
5. Know your allergies & reactions (vs. common side effects)
Listen to any drug commercial and they will list multiple possible side effects and reactions possible for taking a medication. The reality is that ANY medication has a list of common side effects. Having a reaction or side effect is not necessarily considered an allergy. Even Tylenol (acetaminophen) can cause nausea, rash or a headache for some individuals.
Most unpleasant reactions, such as nausea, diarrhea, headache, fatigue may be short-lived or may not outweigh the benefit of the medication. For example, many antibiotics can upset the stomach, causing nausea and even mild diarrhea. However, a mild upset stomach might have to occur if this is the best antibiotic available to treat your infection.
Allergies are usually more life-threatening and can cause serious undesirable effects. These side effects can include a severe rash, itching, vomiting, severe diarrhea, swelling, difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis. This is why having a list handy is important, especially in an emergency situation, so that you are not given something that could make the situation worse.
Medication lists can be daunting to sort, but breaking it down and becoming aware of the pills you take each day is important. Use whatever system works best that allows you to have access to your list at any time.
Sometimes medications are a short term solution to an illness, and other times they are lifelong necessity that becomes your new routine. Alway make certain you are aware of what you are taking and why you are taking medications. Be your own advocate and become an expert with your medications routine.