Managing Your Medications

man with cane
Photo courtesy of Colorado Home Initiative and Florida Office on Disability and Health

Before you take a medication, ask your doctor or your pharmacist about possible side effect and interactions with other medications you are taking. 

Ask your doctor if it's okay to take the generic form of a prescribed drug. This could reduce your costs.

What Is a Medication?

A medication is a substance used to treat or prevent diseases or to relieve the symptoms of a health condition. For example, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to cure an infection or an antidepressant to relieve depression. People also take vitamins and other dietary supplements to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Tell your doctor or health care provider if you take any supplements when you discuss medications.

There are two types of medications:

  • Prescription medications are those that your health care provider prescribes after talking with and examining you. You have to get prescription medicines from a pharmacy. Sometimes a health care provider can give you a sample of the medicine.
  • Non-prescription or “over–the-counter (OTC)” medicines are those that you can buy in any pharmacy without a prescription (such as pain relievers Advil and Tylenol, or antihistamines for allergies). Vitamin supplements and herbal medications are also considered OTC medicines because they are used to treat ailments or keep you healthy.

What Does Managing Your Medications Mean?

Taking a variety of different medications to address different conditions or symptoms can be a very delicate balance. While medications can help you greatly, these very same drugs can also be harmful if they are not managed properly. This may cause potential risks to your health.

Some ways medications can hurt you are:

  1. When medications have negative side effects on your body.
  2. When medications interact with each other and produce unwanted effects.
  3. When there is drug duplication. This means that different drugs have a similar effect on the body.

Remembering which drug to take, in what dose and when, is the first step in managing your medications. But managing your medications is more than just taking the right medicine at the right time. It also means learning as much as possible about the medicines you take and how they interact with each other. Your knowledge will help you lead a healthier lifestyle, lower the risks of negative side effects and benefit from having your medicines work as they should.

Understanding the Effects of Medications

Sometimes a medication produces effects besides the one it is intended for. It is important to understand that people can react differently to the same medications, so watch your own responses when you begin a new medicine.

(1) The desired effect happens when the drug acts the way it should in the body, for the purpose for which it was taken or prescribed.

(2) A side effect happens when a medicine produces symptoms in addition to the desired effect. For example, some people take Benadryl for their allergies. But many people feel sleepy when they take this drug – so sleepiness is a side effect. (Because of these side effects, some medicines come with a warning not to drink alcohol or operate dangerous machines while you are taking them.) Some side effects, like dry mouth (which can cause tooth decay and gum disease), can be treated with other medications to reduce their effects (for example, a special mouthwash to help moisten your mouth). However, other side effects can be more serious, such as nausea or weight gain. Sometimes a side effect can even be life threatening. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects before you take a medication.

(3) Tolerance to a medication happens when the medication is no longer effective at the original dose. In order to treat your symptoms, you need to take more of the medication to reach the desired effect. Your doctor will determine if you reach a tolerance level that needs to be adjusted.

(4) Dependence is when an individual has a physical or psychological need for a medication beyond the original purpose. For example, a person taking laxatives for a long time may become physically dependent on them in order to have a bowel movement. Painkillers can cause psychological dependence.

(4) Interactions can occur between medications (prescribed or OTC), as well as between medications and food. For example, two or more drugs taken together can produce a more intense effect, which may be desired or may be harmful to the body. Or, two drugs taken at the same time can interact to produce a side effect that does not occur when the drugs are taken separately. Sometimes taking a drug with a certain type of food can reduce the desired effect of the medicine.  Ask your doctor or your pharmacist about possible interactions of your medicines and whether or not to take them with food.

(5) No apparent effect means that the medicine a person is taking is not doing the job for which it was prescribed. If this happens, tell your health care provider. Ask before you take the medicine how long it should take to see an effect.

6) Paradoxical effect means that a medicine produces the opposite effect for which it was designed. Some prescribed anti-anxiety medicines are supposed to make you feel calm and relax your muscles. However, in a few patients the very same medicine can increase their anxiety, irritation and agitation. Tell your health care provider or pharmacist about any unexpected or unusual reactions to a medicine.

Why Do Some Medications Cost so Much?

Some medications are very expensive. Prescription drugs that have been recently developed can be expensive because the drug company has a patent on the drug and is trying to recover the costs of the research that went into creating the drug. Also, a drug may be expensive because it is designed to treat a rare disease that not many people have. On the other hand, some drugs that have been available for several years may have “generic” versions, which are just as effective as the “brand name” drug, but are much less expensive. Whenever you get a new prescription, ask your doctor if there is a generic version. It may be possible to reduce your costs. 

How Do I Manage My Medications?

People with physical disabilities sometimes take multiple medicines. Here are some tips for managing your medication regimen.

  • Know your medications. Study your medications’ contraindications (warnings about how to use) and side effects. Ask your pharmacist or doctor:
  1. Is there a certain time of day I should take the prescribed medication?
  2. Do I take it with food or liquids? Are there foods I need to avoid?
  3. What happens if I miss a dosage?
  4. What side effects should I look for?
  5. Is it OK to take the generic form of the prescribed medicine to reduce my costs?
  6. Will the medicine interfere with other medications I’m taking?
  • Keep a current record of the medicines you take.
  • Provide a complete list of all medications you take, including OTC drugs, when you visit your health care provider. If you don’t get all of your medications filled by the same pharmacy, tell your pharmacists about your other prescriptions so they can check for drug interactions.
  • Monitor your response to the medicine. Is it working? If it doesn’t seem to be producing the desired effect, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist.
  • Monitor your weight as well. The dosage of some medicines, such as insulin, is based on a person’s weight. (If your doctor doesn’t have a wheelchair-accessible scale and you require one, ask your doctor or your local hospital where in your community you might be weighed.)
  • Learn about your health care coverage to see if your medications are covered.

For more information on managing your medications, please refer to the resource section.


What is Medication (PDF) (New Hampshire Deparmtment of Health and Human Services) 

Medication Management (Janet Greenhut, MD) 

Managing your Medications (American Liver Foundation)