U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Use Medicines Safely

The Basics

The Basics: Overview

Medicines can help you feel better and get well when you are sick. But if you don’t follow the directions, medicines can hurt you.

You can lower your chances of side effects (unwanted or unexpected effects) from medicines by following directions carefully. Side effects may be mild, like an upset stomach. Other side effects can be more serious, like damage to your liver.

When you follow the directions on the medicine label or from your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse, you get the best results.

Take these simple 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. Share this information with your doctor.
  • Store your medicines in a cool, dry place where children and pets can’t see or get to them.
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The Basics: Prescription Medicines

There are different types of medicine.
The 2 main types 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 at a pharmacy.

  • Prescription medicines shouldn’t be used by anyone except the person whose name is on the prescription.
  • Throw away expired (out-of-date) or unused prescription medicines. Ask your pharmacist about the safest way to throw medicines away.

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

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

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The Basics: OTC 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
  • Antiperspirant (found in many underarm deodorants)

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 you and your problem.

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

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

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Take Action!

Take Action: Follow Directions

Prevent problems and mistakes with your medicines.

Follow directions carefully.
Be sure to read directions carefully when taking prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Review this guide to using OTC medicines safely [PDF - 944 KB].

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

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Take Action: Talk to Your Doctor

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 are allergic to any medicines
  • If you’ve had side effects after using any medicines
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, 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 are feeling better. Get more tips for talking to your doctor about medicine.

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Take Action: Ask Questions

Ask questions to make sure you understand.
To use a medicine safely, you need to know:

  • What the medicine is
  • Why you are using the medicine
  • How to use the medicine the right way
  • If there are any medicines you shouldn’t take with this one

Ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist questions to be sure you understand how to use your medicine.

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Take Action: Keep Track

Keep track of your medicines.

  • Make a list of the medicines you use [PDF - 340 KB]. Write down how much you use and when you use each medicine.
  • Take the list with you when you go to the doctor or nurse. You may also want to make a copy to give to a family member or friend.
  • 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 of 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.
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Take Action: Keep Them Safe

Put your medicines in a safe place.
Medicines that are stored correctly last longer and work better.

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

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