The red pill at noon and the blue pill at bedtime — or was it the other way around? When you have a chronic illness, you may need to take several medications to keep symptoms under control. But what's the best way to do that?
One in 4 US adults and 1 in 15 US children have multiple chronic medical conditions, according to the American Pharmacists Association (APA). Taking multiple medications increases the risk of side effects and medication interactions.
On top of that risk, medications often have specific, complex instructions. Some can’t be taken with food or must be taken at certain times of the day, for instance.
"Keeping track of regular medications can be challenging, especially if you take multiple medications or have chaotic days when you're likely to be distracted," said David Winter, MD, MSc, MACP, Chief Clinical Officer, President and Chairman of the Board of HealthTexas Provider Network (HTPN), a division of Baylor Health Care System. But it's important for your health to take all of your medications correctly. Dr. Winter offered his tips for managing medications, which include using checklists, reminders and dispensers, as well as working closely with your health care team.
Tools of the Trade
Pill dispensers may be one of the handiest tools to come down the pike in a long time. These plastic boxes typically have compartments for each day.
Dr. Winter said using a pill box, which you fill up once a week, is an easy way to tell if you missed a pill.
If you only need to take your pills in the morning, get a dispenser with seven compartments — Monday through Sunday. Once a week, sit down with your medication bottles and dispenser. Fill each day’s compartment with the medications you need for that day.
If you take some medicines with each meal and at bedtime or on a different schedule, you’ll need a different kind of dispenser, but the same principle applies.
Keep all of your medicines in the same spot if possible (make sure it’s out of the reach of children). If you must keep a medication somewhere else, such as in the refrigerator, attach a note to your pill dispenser or put a sign on the fridge.
"Some prescription pill bottles have an alarm in the cap — this can also tell you when it's time to take a pill," Dr. Winter told dailyRx News. "And there are lots of apps for smart phones to remind you when a pill needs to be taken."
You also could set an alarm on your watch or computer.
If you're tech-savvy, take a look at how your smartphone might be used for reminders. A recent study in The Pharmaceutical Journal found that mobile apps may help with medication management. These apps can send reminders to your smartphone when it's time for your pill.
If possible, take your medications in connection with another daily activity, such as a meal or a favorite TV show.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
If you have multiple medical problems, the odds are high that you also see more than one doctor. Each doctor might prescribe different medications, making it even harder to keep track of what pill to take when.
Keep an up-to-date list of all the medications you take — include herbs, vitamins and supplements, too. Take a copy of this list with you to each doctor’s appointment and ask the doctor to add your medications to your chart.
"With your physician, you need one doctor in charge of all your medications. So if you see multiple physicians, or go to see the dentist or a podiatrist who writes a prescription, tell your 'quarterback' physician so he or she can keep track of any adverse interactions," Dr. Winter said.
"If you get a new prescription in the doctor's office, ask the physician to write down that medication or print it out on the computer so that you can keep track of that in the lineup of all your medications," he said.
The University of Iowa College of Public Health recommends periodically asking for a medication review, in which you and the doctor or nurse go over your medication list. Some health care workers charge for these reviews, but they can help keep you safe.
Also, write down any questions about your medications as they occur to you and take the list to your doctor.
Get Expert Advice
The APA notes that pharmacists can be a wonderful resource if you have any questions about medications. A pharmacist can tell you how to store a medication, what the most likely side effects are and how you should take it.
Getting all of your medications at a single pharmacy makes it much easier for a pharmacist to spot potential problems. Having a single pharmacy also lowers the risk that you might forget to refill or pick up a medication.
Whenever a doctor prescribes a new medication, ask the pharmacist to explain when and how you should take it and what side effects to watch for.