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Avoid medication mishaps

Simple steps can make a difference

Photo: digicomphoto/iStockphoto

If you take medications, it’s important to take them correctly.

The more meds you take, the easier it is to get confused and take too many or not enough, take them at the wrong times, and more. That goes for both prescription and over-the-counter meds.

It’s a serious issue: About 1.3 million medication-related ER visits and 350,000 hospitalizations occur in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some simple steps can help you or a loved one take meds safely.

Stay organized

Organization is key. The National Institutes of Health suggests three systems that may work for you.
A pill organizer: Available at any drugstore, they’re typically configured for use over seven, 14 or 28 days, with a compartment for each day. You can use more than one dispenser if some of your meds need to be taken more than once a day. “Label each one with the time of day,” the NIH says.
An automatic pill dispenser: These can hold one to four weeks’ worth of pills and dispense them up to six times a day. Most models feature blinking lights and audio alarms, which are a big help for people who may forget to take their medication or need to take it at specific times.
Color labeling: Use a color marker to label your medicine bottles for the time of day you should take the medication. For example, use a blue mark for the morning, a green mark for lunchtime and a black mark for nighttime.

Keep in mind that older people often take lots of medications, and they may need help filling and refilling their dispensers. And automatic pill dispensers run on batteries, which will need to be changed.

You also need to create a plan for how you’ll organize and take your medications when you’re away from home.

Dispose of expired meds the safe way

The bottles of your medications should all feature an expiration date. Check them regularly and dispose of any expired items. But don’t just toss them into your household garbage.

First, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recommends asking your pharmacy about local “medicine takeback programs” or other disposal options. If your pharmacy doesn’t have a medication drop box, your local police station may have one.

If a takeback program isn’t an option, look for disposal instructions on the medicine’s label or in the information that accompanies the medicine.

“If no instructions are given, crush and mix medicines with coffee grounds, cat litter, or food scraps; seal them in a bag or a container (such as a margarine tub or jar); and discard them in the regular trash,” Johns Hopkins says.

Discard any medicines that have been discontinued, too. Find out more about where and how to dispose of expired or unused meds at

Put it in writing

Writing out your daily schedule for medications on a calendar or chart is useful, too.

“Be sure to update the schedule each time your medicine changes,” the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says. “Follow the schedule exactly, and take the exact dosage prescribed by your health care provider.”

Also important: Keeping and printing out a detailed list (with dosages and how often you take them) of your medications, including over-the-counter meds and herbal supplements. Keep a copy at home and in your wallet or purse. It’s especially helpful if you have more than one medical provider, and it provides crucial information for paramedics and medical staff if you need to go to the ER.

“Patients should be writing down what medications they’re on, why they’re taking it and how they take it, and bring it to all of their appointments,” said Denise Fu, clinical programs manager of patient care services with Johns Hopkins Home Care Group.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends reviewing your medications with your primary care provider at least once a year (but preferably each visit). “Bottom line: A medication review with your health care provider can help you avoid medication interactions.”

Stay informed on side effects

Virtually all medicines have the potential for side effects, and it’s important to know what they are. That’s why you need to read the information that accompanies your medicine, or ask your doctor or pharmacist questions if you’re unsure about anything.

Asking questions lets you act as an advocate for yourself or others, says Denise Fu, clinical programs manager of patient care services with Johns Hopkins Home Care Group.

Fu advises that you ask what the potential side effects are, what the medication is typically used for, whether it matters what time of the day it’s taken, and whether it should be taken with or without food.

She also recommends you check with your pharmacy to see if it offers medication therapy management. If it does, a pharmacist can go over with you all of your medications, their potential side effects and other important information, and answer your questions.

“Just being able to ask those questions proactively helps them have a better understanding of the drug,” Fu said.

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