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 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.
The 2 categories of medicine are prescription and over-the-counter (OTC).
Prescription medicines are medicines you can get only with a prescription (order) from your doctor. You get these medicines from a pharmacy. Prescription medicines shouldn’t be used by anyone except the person whose name is on the prescription. Get rid of expired (out-of-date) or unused prescription medicines. Learn about how to get rid of medicines safely or ask your pharmacist for tips.
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
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy at a store without a prescription. Some examples of OTC medicines include:
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.
Prevent problems and mistakes with your medicines. Follow the directions carefully. Be sure to read the directions carefully when taking prescription or OTC medicines. Review this guide to using OTC medicines safely [PDF – 944 KB].
If you notice unpleasant side effects after taking medicine, like feeling dizzy or having an upset stomach, call your doctor or nurse.
Before you use any new prescription medicines, tell your doctor:
Be sure to keep taking prescription medicines until your doctor tells you it’s okay to stop – even if you are feeling better. If you’re worried the medicine is making you feel worse, tell your doctor. Sometimes you can get side effects from stopping your medicine.
To use a medicine safely, you need to know:
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. 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.
Make a list of the medicines you use [PDF – 340 KB]. Write down how much you use and when you use each medicine.
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.