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15 Things Your Pharmacist Wishes You Knew

Here's what all pharmacists would tell you, if only they had the time. Read on for advice that could potentially save your life.

Don’t rush it

That line at the pharmacy counter may be annoying, but its long for a reason. Your pharmacist has a ton of things to do—and it takes time to do it right. “A pharmacist’s job to a lay person may seem simplistic, but there are many functions, from reviewing your profile to checking interactions, and making sure you’re getting the correct drug, and dosage,” says Fernando Gonzalez , RPhI, assistant professor pharmaceutical sciences division at Long Island University’s Arnold & Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “Patients should realize that rushing a prescription is like telling a pilot not to check the landing gear before takeoff,” he adds. Here are 10 things you need to know right now about taking too many medications.

Don’t cheat on your pharmacist

It may be more convenient to sometimes use the pharmacy at work, and other times, the one closest to home, but filling your prescriptions at multiple locations removes a layer of protection from your care, which could make your prescriptions less effective—or even deadly. Drug interactions are a real thing—and that includes every drug, including those that don’t require a prescription. “Make sure all your doctors are aware of every medication you’re taking, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbs,” urges Brian R. Malone, R. Ph, director of Pharmaceutical Services and Medication Safety Officer at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island. Remember that some medications cancel each other out, and others are dangerous to mix. Learn about 10 additional OTC medication mistakes to avoid.

Know what your prescription plan covers

Medication sticker shock is as upsetting to your pharmacist as it is to you. They want you to be able to get the medications best able to make you well, but these conversations are better had with your doctor, or insurance company, rather than your pharmacist. “It’s important for patients to have a better understanding of their insurance plans, so they know if certain medications will be covered, or if they will wind up with a huge bill. Pharmacists have become the bearer of bad news regarding plan limitations, copays, and deductibles. For example, if you have a Medicare Part D prescription plan, you may want to review your options prior to selecting a plan with your pharmacist,” recommends Gonzalez.

Brown bag it

Your conditions change over time, and so do the medications on the market which can treat them. To make sure you’re getting the best, up-to-the-minute care available, Malone suggests bringing all of your medications to your doctor, at least once a year. “Brown bagging your medicines can help you and your doctor talk about them and find out if there are any problems,” he adds.

Don’t take (medical) matters into your own hands

Medications can become expensive, but don’t let cost jeopardize your health. According to Gonzalez, patients should become better educated about their medication options, including their cost, but must be proactive, and ask to be counseled, if that information isn’t readily supplied. “Today’s drugs are so potent and so expensive. Taking them correctly is the key to disease management. Many patients who have reached, or exceeded, their plans max now have to pay a higher fee for their prescriptions and tend to start extending the medications they have by not taking them as prescribed, or not taking them at all. This is a very dangerous practice,” he says. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about plans which may be more affordable for you, and find out which drug manufacturers might be willing to provide you with free or lower-cost medications. Here are 10 super-important questions you must ask before taking prescription medications.

Ask questions

Your pharmacist lives and breathes medications all day. They are an incredibly knowledgeable resource you should use, especially if you’ve got a doctor who watches the clock during appointments. “Always ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand,” says Malone, who suggests writing down these questions, and taking them with you, each time you fill a new prescription:

  • What is this medicine for?
  • How am I supposed to take it and for how long?
  • What side effects are likely? What should I do if they occur?
  • Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements?
  • What food, drinks, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?

Make sure to write down the answers and to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something your pharmacist says.

Save the Internet for social networking, not for buying medicine

“Patients need to have an understanding of the dangers of purchasing medications from unapproved sources. Examples of this are invalid Internet sites, that could offer prescription drugs at dramatically low prices. In most case, these are unapproved, and may even be counterfeit. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has the highest standards of drug approval in the world, and all manufacturers must comply. That is not true of drugs you buy from unauthorized sources, including individuals who claim to be selling prescription drugs they no longer need,” says Gonzalez. In some cases, this is even illegal, according to WebMD.

Check and double check

Ask to look at your medication bottles before they are bagged. “Patients should check their medications before they leave the pharmacy. Look at the vial to check the name of patient, drug, doctor, and directions. Patients need to talk to the intern or pharmacist, not the cashier, to get these answers. If your medications look different, either in shape or color, always check with the pharmacist,” says Gonzalez. Don’t miss these silent signs your medication is making you sick.

Ask for help when you need it

“Have your family, or caregivers, pre-pour your medications into a medication planner if you find that you’re forgetting to take your medications, says Malone. This can also help you to avoid dangerous overdoses if you don’t remember taking your medication and accidentally take it twice.

Travel wisely

Whether you plan to travel around the world, or simply to another state, be proactive about your medications. You may forget, or lose, something you desperately need, without a pharmacy you trust nearby. “When traveling, keep a list of all your medications with both brand and generic names. There are drugs manufactured in other countries with the same brand name as in the U.S. which contain different active ingredients. Patients should also know to keep medications in their carry on bags. In addition, dosage adjustments for time zone changes may be needed. Consult with your pharmacist before you go!” stresses Gonzalez.

Check expiration dates

“Outdated medications not only lose their strength, but can also become toxic, and make you ill,” says Malone. Schedule a specific time once or twice a year, for checking expiration dates on your prescription, and over-the-counter medications, and dump anything that has expired. Some people do this when they change the batteries in their smoke detectors, or as part of an annual spring cleaning ritual.

Turn on the lights

Don’t ever take medications without your glasses on, if you wear glasses, or in the dark or semi-dark. Believe it or not, Malone was once consulted by someone who’d put hydrocortisone cream on her toothbrush for two days straight. Another woman contacted him when she accidentally took her dog’s worm medication. Taking medication can become an automatic thing that you do without thinking. Rather than going on auto-pilot, stop for a minute, and make sure you are taking what you’re supposed to in the right dosage.

Personalize your medication bottles

If you live with others, separate everyone’s medications if possible and keep them in different places. If that is not practical, find a way to identify each household member’s meds, including pets. Pill bottles all look alike, and so do many pills. Try color-coding the bottles with a marker or with nail polish so you don’t take someone else’s drugs by mistake. Here are the signs you might be taking too many prescriptions.

Keep your medications at room temperature

And then there’s the one about the woman who took over-the-counter allergy pills which had been kept in a hot glove compartment for two days. She became violently ill (plus got no allergy relief). “Don’t keep medication in direct sunlight, or subject them to extreme temperatures, ever,” says Malone. Life-saving medications, such as nitroglycerin, lose their effectiveness if they are kept in too-hot temperatures for too long. According to NPR, all medications should be kept at room temperature, unless their label specifies that they be refrigerated. Learn the simple steps to organizing your medicine cabinet.

Don’t crush it

Malone stresses that even though pills are sometimes hard to swallow, they should never, ever be crushed up without your doctor’s OK. This is because some medications are time-released and are designed to slowly enter your bloodstream. Crushing them up eliminates their ability to work as they should and may even be dangerous. If you are having trouble swallowing your pills, do not stop taking your medication. Talk to your doctor about alternative drugs, such as those in liquid form, which will be easier for you to tolerate.

Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.