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Common Medication Errors and What To Do About Them.

When people take medicine at home, mistakes happen. There are many ways to make mistakes with medicines. Among the most common are taking the wrong medicine, taking too much medicine, giving the wrong medicine, and confusing one medicine for another. Other times, it's a health professional who's at fault. For example, a pharmacist might have dispensed medication at the wrong concentration.

The point being, we all make mistakes and that is why, when it comes to taking medication, we should be double-checking ourselves and others. After all, problems from these mix-ups could range from minor to extremely serious.

For this reason, sticking to your (correct) medication routine (or medication adherence) means taking medications as prescribed by their doctorsthe right dose, at the right time, in the right way, and frequency. This involves factors such as getting prescriptions filled, remembering to take medication on time, and understanding the directions. Non-adherence in taking your medicine as prescribed by a doctor or instructed by a pharmacist can interfere with the ability to treat many diseases, leading to greater complications from the illness and a lower quality of life.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that non-adherence causes 30 to 50 percent of chronic disease treatment failures and 125,000 deaths per year in this country (FDA)

Common barriers to medication adherence include:

  • the inability to pay for medications

  • disbelief that the treatment is necessary or helping

  • difficulty keeping up with multiple medications and complex dosing schedules

  • confusion about how and when to take the medication

If you accidentally...

Take Someone Else's' Medication:

Medicines can look alike. Prescription bottles look alike. One pile of pills on the counter looks like another pile of pills.

People who take each other's medicines both can wind up in the emergency room. Try these tips:

  • Store each person's medicines in a different cabinet or small storage box.

  • Color-code the medicine bottles. Stickers or markers can help - maybe a blue dot for his and a red dot for hers?

  • Keep medicines in their bottles or pill sorters. A pile of pills on the counter is a mistake waiting to happen! The wrong spouse, a child, or a pet could swallow them.

Take Medicine Twice:

Life is busy. Taking your medicine is only one of many things to remember. Here are a few ways of keeping track:

  • Pill sorters or pill minders let you organize your pills for a week or a month at a time. You can tell at a glance if you've taken your medicine. A well-stocked pharmacy will have several types to choose from. (Most of these are NOT child-resistant. If there are young children who live in or visit your home, choose a child-resistant pill sorter.)

  • A notebook, journal, or calendar can help. Write down or mark each time you take your medicine.

  • Some people find that a timer helps them remember to take their medicines.

Take or Give too Much Medication:

  • Read the label! Medicine labels may look different, but they all have information about how much is in one dose. Look for it.

  • Measure liquid medicines with special measuring devices, such as medicine syringes and cups. If there isn't a measuring device with your medicine, ask your pharmacist about the correct type. DO NOT use household spoons; they are not the standard sizes for medicines.

  • If you aren't sure about how to measure medicines, ask your pharmacist for help

Errors with Taking Over-the-Counter Medications:

Many over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines have similar ingredients. Some allergy medicines also contain the same ingredients. It's easy to take an overdose of a pain reliever/fever reducer, antihistamine (for sneezing), decongestant (for stuffiness), and a cough reliever. Here's how to take cough, cold, and allergy medicines safely:

  • Treat your symptoms. For example, take a cough suppressant if you have a cough. Don't choose a medicine that also has a decongestant and a pain reliever.

  • Read and compare labels. For example, if one medicine has "acetaminophen" on the ingredient list, do not take another medicine with acetaminophen in it.

  • Read the warnings on the label. For example, people with high blood pressure might be warned not to take a decongestant.

  • Follow the dosing instructions. Take only as much as the label states for your (or your child's) age and weight.

  • Take the medicine only as often as the label instructs. Taking too much will NOT make you feel better and will NOT make your cold go away faster!

8 Tips That May Help:

  • Take your medication at the same time every day.

  • Communicate with your healthcare provider: i.e. make sure you understand how long to take the medication and tell your doctor if paying for prescription drugs is a problem.

  • Tie taking your medications with a daily routine like brushing your teeth or getting ready for bed. Before choosing mealtime for your routine, check if your medication should be taken on a full or empty stomach.

  • Keep a “medicine calendar” with your pill bottles and note each time you take a dose.

  • Leave your medications where you'll notice them, as a reminder.

  • Use a pill container. Some types have sections for multiple doses at different times, such as morning, lunch, evening, and night.

  • When using a pill container, refill it at the same time each week. For example, every Sunday morning after breakfast.

  • Purchase timer caps for your pill bottles and set them to go off when your next dose is due. Some pillboxes also have timer functions.

  • When traveling, be certain to bring enough of your medication, plus a few days extra, in case your return is delayed.

  • If you’re flying, keep your medication in your carry-on bag to avoid lost luggage. **Temperatures inside the cargo hold could damage your medication.

Here are two very useful FDA websites with more tips and tools to help you take your medication as prescribed: “Are You Taking Your Medication as Prescribed?” and “Updates and Information for Consumers.”

If you make a mistake with medicine, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 right away. You will need to provide some information: 

  • the name of the medicine;

  • the amount that was taken;

  • when it was taken;

  • the age of the person;

  • the weight of the person;

  • your name and phone number, if you call Poison Control, in case the call gets disconnected.




Poison Control