Medication Safety: Everything You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on November 3, 2017Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso

Using medication properly

There are so many ways to make a mistake when it comes to medications. You could:

  • take the wrong medicine
  • take too much medication
  • mix up your medications
  • combine medications that shouldn’t be combined
  • forget to take a dose of your medication on time

With of American adults taking at least one medication and taking five or more, medication errors are more common than you may think.

Read on to learn how to properly take, store, and handle your medications and what to do if you accidentally take too much or the wrong medication.

How to safely take liquid and capsule medications

A medication label often contains an overwhelming amount of information, but it’s incredibly important that you spend some time reading it.

When reading a label, you should be looking for a few key pieces of information, including:

  • The name and purpose of the medication. Pay particular attention to medications that contain a combination of multiple drugs.
  • Who the medication is for. You should never take a medication that’s prescribed to someone else, even if you have the exact same illness.
  • The dose. This includes how much to take and how often, as well as what to do if you miss a dose.
  • How the drug is administered. This is to see if it’s swallowed, chewed and then swallowed, rubbed onto the skin, breathed into the lungs, or inserted into the ears, eyes, or rectum, etc.
  • Special instructions. This may be like if the medication should be taken with or without food.
  • How the medicine should be stored. Most medications need to be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, but some need to be put in the refrigerator.
  • The expiration date. Some medications are still safe to use after expiration, but may not be as effective. However, it’s recommended to be safe and not take any expired medications.
  • Side effects. Check for the most common side effects that you may experience.
  • Interactions. Drug interactions may include with other drugs, as well as with food, alcohol, and more.

Tips for capsule medications

To avoid choking, swallow a capsule medication with a gulp of water. If you have trouble swallowing the pill, try tilting your chin slightly toward your chest (not back) and swallowing with your head bent forward (not back). And here’s what to do if a pill is stuck in your throat.

If you still have difficulty swallowing a capsule or tablet, you may be able to crush it and mix it with soft food, like applesauce, but you should check with your pharmacist first. The label might specify whether or not the medication can be crushed or sprinkled on food, but it’s always a good idea to double check.

Crushing or mixing can alter the effectiveness of certain drugs. Some medications have a timed-release outer coating that releases the medication slowly over time. Others have a coating that prevents it from being broken down in the stomach. These medications shouldn’t be crushed or dissolved.

Tips for liquid medications

If the label says so, you should shake the bottle before pouring a dose of the medication. Most importantly, only use the dosing device that comes with the medicine. A kitchen spoon most likely won’t be as accurate as the dosing device because it doesn’t provide standard measurements. If the liquid medication doesn’t come with a dosing device, purchase a measuring device from a drugstore or pharmacy. Check your measurement at least twice before ingesting. Don’t just fill up the cup or syringe or “eyeball” it.

For all prescription medications, always finish the amount prescribed by the doctor — even if you begin to feel better before that.

How to identify pills

There are lots of resources on the web to help you identify the brand, dosage, and type of medication you have including:

Storing medications safely

The most important piece of advice for medication storage is to read the label. While most medications need to be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place, some medications require refrigeration or specific temperatures.

Here are some more tips about storing medications safely:

  • Don’t remove the label, under any circumstances.
  • Don’t move the medications to another container unless you’ve been instructed on how to use a pill sorter properly.
  • If you have multiple people living in your household, store each person’s medications separately or color code the medications to avoid confusion.
  • Your bathroom medicine cabinet may not be the best place to store medications, despite the name. Showers and bathtubs can make your bathroom too humid.
  • Store medications high up and out of sight, even if you don’t have children of your own. Children of guests can get into your medication in the blink of an eye.

Giving your child medicine

When your child is sick, you’ll do anything to make them feel better. When it comes to medications, giving too much or too little could cause serious side effects. Always check in with a doctor if you're unsure whether your child’s symptoms need medication. Never try to diagnose your child yourself.

Keep in mind that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medications are for children under 6 years of age. You should also never give aspirin to kids because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome. A pediatrician may have you try some non-medicinal treatments, like fluids, vaporizers, or saline rinses to treat your child before recommending medications.

Keeping medications away from children

Children are naturally curious and won’t hesitate to explore the medicine cabinet. That’s why keeping medications in a place your child can’t easily access is crucial. The estimates that roughly 60,000 children end up in the emergency room each year because they ingested medication when an adult wasn’t watching.

To keep your child safe, follow these simple tips for storing your medications, including vitamins and supplements:

  • Store medications up high and out of a child’s sight. Avoid easy to access places like a drawer or a nightstand.
  • Always replace the cap on a medicine bottle after using it. Also make sure the safety cap locks into place. If the medication has a safety cap, you should hear it click.
  • Put your medicine away immediately after using it. Never leave them out on the counter, even for a few moments.
  • Keep the medication in its original container. Also, if your medication came with a dosing device, keep it together with the bottle.
  • Never tell a child that a medication or vitamin is candy.
  • Tell family members and visitors to be cautious. Ask them to keep their purse or bag high up and out of sight of your child if they have medications inside.
  • Have the number for poison control ready. Keep the number (1-800-222-1222) programmed into your cell phone and posted to your refrigerator. Poison control also has an for guidance.
  • Teach caregivers about your child’s medications.
  • If your child does ingest your medication, don’t force them to throw up. Contact poison control or dial 911 and await further instruction.

How to dispose of expired medication

All prescription and OTC medications are required to have an expiration date printed somewhere on the packaging. The expiration date is the last date that a drug manufacturer guarantees the drug’s safety and effectiveness, but well past that date. However, there’s still a small chance the drug won’t be as effective. To be on the safe side, you should dispose of any expired medication.

You have five options for disposing of expired medications:

  1. Throw them in the trash. Nearly all medicines can be safely thrown into your trash bin. To do this, break down tablets or capsules and mix them with another substance, like used coffee grounds, so children and pets won’t try to get to it. Then put the mixture in a sealed bag or container and toss it in the garbage can.
  2. Flush them down the toilet. The FDA has a recommended for disposal by flushing. Certain prescription pain medicines and controlled substances are recommended for flushing to prevent illegal use. However, not all medications are safe to flush down the toilet. Check the FDA list before doing so.
  3. Return the medication to a local pharmacy. Call the pharmacy beforehand, as each one may have a different policy.
  4. Bring the expired medication to a local hazardous waste collection facility. Some fire departments or police stations also accept expired medications.
  5. Attend a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. for more information and to find a collection site in your area.

What do you do if you make a mistake with your medication?

Here’s what to do if you:

Take too much medication

The consequences of taking too much of a medication will depend on the type of medication. Once you notice that you took too much of a medication, it’s important not to panic.

If you’re not experiencing any negative symptoms, call your doctor or poison control (1-800-222-1222) and explain the situation, including which type of medication and how much you took. Poison control will also want to know your age and weight, and a number to reach you in case you get disconnected. Await further instructions.

If you or the person who overdosed start experiencing any of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • trouble breathing
  • loss of consciousness
  • convulsions
  • hallucinations
  • drowsiness
  • enlarged pupils

Make sure to bring the pill containers with you to the hospital.

Take the wrong medication

Taking someone else’s prescription medication is illegal, but sometimes it happens by mistake. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important that you call poison control for advice on whether or not you need to go to the emergency room.

Call 911 if you start noticing signs of distress, such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • trouble staying awake
  • swelling of the lips or tongue
  • rapidly spreading rash
  • impaired speech

To prevent taking the wrong medication, many drug labels will describe how to identify what your pill should look like. If you’re not sure, you should check to see what it should look like. All pills have a drug marking as well as a unique size, shape, and color.

Take a dangerous combination of medication

Drug interactions can cause very serious reactions. Call poison control if you think you’ve taken a dangerous combination of medications or if you’re not sure if the drugs will interact, or contact the doctor who prescribed the medications if available.

If you start noticing signs of distress, call 911.

Take expired medication

In most cases, there’s no need to panic if you take an expired medication — but there are a few safety concerns to be aware of. For example, expired medications are at a higher risk of bacterial contamination. There’s also a small chance the medication is no longer effective. Expired antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious infections and antibiotic resistance.

While a lot of medications will still be safe and effective after the expiration date, it’s still . Once you notice it’s expired, dispose of the medication and either buy a new one or request a refill.

Take a medication you’re allergic to

Always inform your doctor and pharmacist about any allergies you have, even if the allergic reaction took place a long time ago. If you start getting a rash, hives, or start vomiting after taking a medication, contact your doctor.

If you have trouble breathing, or have swelling in your lips or throat, call 911 or head to the emergency room immediately.

The bottom line

The best advice for medication safety is to read the label and listen to your pharmacist and doctor. Medications are generally safe when used as prescribed or as directed by the label, but errors occur far too often. Contrary to popular belief, your bathroom “medicine cabinet” isn’t the best place to store medications, especially if you have kids.

If you or your child get a rash or hives, or start vomiting after taking a medication, stop taking the medication and contact your doctor or pharmacist. If you or your child has trouble breathing after taking a medication, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away. Be sure to also have the toll-free poison control number (1-800-222-1222) programmed into your phone and their bookmarked for easy access to their online tool.

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