When you're not feeling well, you may reach for some type of medicine whether it's an over-the-counter medicine like aspirin for fever or a prescription medicine from your doctor.

There are things you can do to ensure that you are using medicines safely. All medications have benefits, but they also have potential risks. Here are some ways you can understand the benefits and risks of the medications you take.

  • Keep a list of all medicines that you take. This list should include any prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and herbal remedies. Include information about how much of the medicine you take and how often you take it. Be sure to list medicines that you only take when needed. For instance, if you take an over-the-counter allergy medicine during pollen season, write that down. Take this list with you each time you visit your doctor so that you can discuss the medicines with your doctor. You also may want to keep this list with you in your purse or wallet in case you need emergency medical care.
  • If you use more than one pharmacy, make sure that each pharmacy knows what medicines you are on. The pharmacist can help look for potential interactions with your medicines that might lead to unwanted or even dangerous side effects.
  • Ensure your doctor and pharmacist know of any allergic reactions or severe side effects you have to medications. You should make sure this information is entered into your patient records and include it on your medication list.
  • Read the label carefully and follow the directions. This is especially important if you are getting up during the night to take a medication or giving medicine to your child.
  • Make sure you understand exactly how you should take each medication. Ask your doctor if the medication is taken at specific intervals (such as every eight hours). Find out if you need to take the medicine on an empty stomach or with meals. Ask what you should do if you miss a dose of the medication.
  • Don't take someone else's medicine or take medicine that is past its expiration date. You should check your medicine cabinet and dispose of any medicines that are past their expiration date.
  • Use antibiotics wisely. Antibiotics work against bacterial infections not viruses. Don't expect your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic for every cold or sniffle. If you are given a prescription, you must take all of the medication exactly as prescribed. Don't stop taking the medicine just because you feel better. Improper use of antibiotics is helping bacteria become resistant to different types of drugs, which makes them harder to treat.
  • Store medicines properly. Some medicines must be kept refrigerated. You should keep medicines in a cool, dry location – which usually means the bathroom is not the best place to store medicines. It's also important to keep medicines away from small children.
  • Think about medication safety even if you are in the hospital. Ask what medicines you are being given. Make certain the nurse checks your nametag and compares it to the medicine you are given. If a medication that you normally take looks different, ask why. It may be a generic. Remind the hospital staff about any allergic reactions you may have had and be sure to tell the nurse and your doctor if you seem to be experiencing any side effects.

By working together, you and your health care team can help ensure that your medications will work for you.