The Basics: Overview

When you’re sick, medicines can help you feel better and get well. But if you don’t follow the directions, medicines can harm you.

You can lower your chances of side effects from medicines by carefully following the directions on the medicine label or from your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse.

Side effects may be mild, like an upset stomach. Other side effects — like damage to your liver — can be more serious. Some side effects can even be deadly.

Take these steps to avoid problems with medicines:

  • Follow the directions on the medicine label carefully
  • If you don’t understand the directions, ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist to explain them to you
  • Keep a list of all the medicines, vitamins, minerals, and herbs you use — and share this information with your doctor at your next checkup
  • Store your medicines in a cool, dry place where children and pets can’t see or reach them

The Basics: Prescription Medicines

There are different types of medicine.

The 2 categories of medicine are prescription and over-the-counter (OTC).

Prescription medicines

Prescription medicines are medicines you can get only with a prescription (order) from your doctor. You get these medicines from a pharmacy.

These medicines are only safe to use if your name is on the prescription. Using someone else’s prescription medicine can be very harmful.

Sometimes you can choose between a generic medicine and a brand name medicine. Generic and brand name medicines work the same way, but generic medicine usually costs less.

Talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or insurance company for more information about generic medicines. Learn more about generic medicines.

The Basics: Over-the-Counter Medicines

Over-the-counter medicines 

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy at a store without a prescription.

Some examples of OTC medicines include:

  • Cold and flu medicines
  • Pain medicines like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen
  • Allergy medicines
  • Sleep aids
  • Toothpaste with fluoride

Drug Facts label

All OTC medicines come with a Drug Facts label. The information on this label can help you choose the right OTC medicine for your symptoms.

The Drug Facts label also gives you instructions for using the medicine safely. OTC medicines can cause side effects or harm if you use too much or don’t use them correctly.

Following the directions on the Drug Facts label will lower your chances of side effects. Learn more about what’s on the Drug Facts label.

Your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist can also help you choose OTC medicines and answer any questions you may have. 

Take Action: Talk to Your Doctor

Take these steps to prevent problems and mistakes with your medicines.

Talk to your doctor.

Before you use any new prescription medicines, tell your doctor:

  • About other medicines you use — both prescription and OTC medicines
  • About any vitamins, minerals, or herbs you use 
  • If you’re allergic to any medicines
  • If you’ve had side effects after using any medicines
  • If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding — this is because some medicines may harm your baby
  • If you have any questions or concerns about the new medicine

Be sure to keep taking prescription medicines until your doctor tells you it’s okay to stop — even if you’re feeling better. If you’re worried the medicine is making you feel worse, tell your doctor. Keep in mind that sometimes you can get side effects from stopping your medicine.

Talk with your doctor about drug misuse.

If you think you may have a problem with either legal medicines or illegal drugs (like heroin or cocaine), tell your doctor. Your doctor needs to know what drugs you’re using before you start a new medicine — and treatment can help you stop misusing drugs. Learn more about getting help for drug misuse.

Take Action: Take Time to Understand Directions

Follow the directions carefully.

Be sure to read the directions carefully when taking prescription or OTC medicines. Learn more about using OTC medicines safely.

If you notice unpleasant side effects after taking medicine, like feeling dizzy or having an upset stomach, call your doctor or nurse.

Ask questions to make sure you understand.

To use a medicine safely, you need to know:

  • The name of the medicine
  • Why you’re using the medicine
  • How to use the medicine the right way
  • If there are any medicines you need to avoid while you’re taking this one
  • What the side effects could be
  • How to get rid of unused medicine safely

Ask your doctor or nurse questions to be sure you understand how to use your medicine. Take notes to help you remember the answers. You can even ask to record the instructions on your phone. Check out these questions to ask your doctor or nurse.

You can also ask a pharmacist if you forget how to use a medicine or you don’t understand the directions. Use these tips to talk with a pharmacist about your medicines.

Take Action: Keep Track

Keep track of your medicines.

Follow these tips to help you keep track of your medicines:

  • Use this resource to make a list of the medicines you use [PDF – 156 KB]. Write down how much you use and when you use each medicine — and make sure to include any dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, or herbs) you take.
  • Take the list with you whenever you go to a medical appointment. You may also want to make a copy to give to a family member or friend in case you have a medical emergency.
  • Read and save any information that comes with your medicine.
  • Keep your medicine in the box or bottle it came in so you have all the information from the label.
  • Pay attention to the color and shape of your pills. If they look different when you get a refill, ask your pharmacist to double-check that you have the right medicine.

Take Action: Keep Them Safe

Put your medicines in a safe place.

Medicines that are stored correctly last longer and work better. Follow these tips:

Call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) right away if a child or someone else accidentally uses your medicine.