Audio podcast - Taking medicines safely

Read this page for more information on how to take and look after your child's medicine.

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Medicines can be confusing. On the one hand, we are told that they can cure an illness or improve our symptoms, but on the other, they can be dangerous if taken incorrectly.

The key to dealing with medicines effectively is to understand them. This information aims to explain a little more about how to take medicines safely, tips for storing and disposing of them and who to ask for more information.

How to take your medicine:

Your medicine should have instructions for taking it either on a label or on the box or bottle. Always follow these instructions and never give more than the recommended dose. Sharing medicines can be dangerous. When they are prescribed, the doctor takes into account the patient’s symptoms and general health.

Even though a friend or relative may have the same symptoms, they may have other factors that make the medicine unsuitable or even dangerous. Medicines should only be taken by the person for whom they were prescribed.

You should have been told whether to give the medicine with or after food or on an empty stomach. This is important because the amount of food in the stomach affects how well the medicine is absorbed. Some medicines can irritate the stomach lining so it is best to take them with or after food to reduce the risk of irritation.

Some medicines interact with certain foods or drinks. For instance, some medicines should not be taken with milk as this can reduce how well they are absorbed. Other medicines, for instance, should not be taken with grapefruit juice. Most tablets or capsules are best taken with a glass of water, preferably while sitting or standing. If you are unsure, please ask the pharmacist.

Taking several medicines at one time:

If you are taking several doses each day, it can be difficult to work out when to take them. With most medicines, you do not have to wake up during the night to take a dose, so you can spread out the doses throughout the day.

Some medicines interact with other medicines. This can happen in various ways: one medicine might stop another from working so well, whereas others can increase the effect of another medicine.

You should always tell the pharmacist about all your child’s medicines, including those bought over the counter, herbal and complementary medicines and other prescribed medicines.

When your pharmacist knows about all of your child’s medicines, he or she can work out if they are likely to interact. If there is a chance of an interaction, you might need to alter the schedule of doses so that the two medicines are not taken at the same time. Alternatively, your child might need to be prescribed another medicine altogether. If you are concerned about medicines interacting, please discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist.

Children's doses:

When prescribing medicines for children, their high and weight are often taken into consideration. You will often see a medicine being given as mg per metre squared (mg/m²) which is referring to a child’s ‘surface area’. This is calculated from a child’s height and weight, so the dose might be increased as a child grows.

This is particularly true of medicines that are taken on a long-term basis as their effectiveness might reduce over time if the dose remains the same. This is why the doctors asks to weigh and measure your child regularly and why the dose that you child receives increases as he or she grows older.

How to store medicines:

Always keep medicines out of sight and reach of children.

Some medicines need to be kept in the fridge, but most need to be kept at room temperature, away from direct sunlight and heat sources, such as radiators or fires. The label should give storage instructions but check with your pharmacist if you are unsure.

A locked medicine cabinet on the wall is often the safest place to store medicines. Most people keep their medicine cabinet in the bathroom, where it can be hot and steamy, and it could be better placed elsewhere in the home.

Always keep medicines in their original packaging. It can be dangerous to ‘decant’ medicines into another container as it will be unlabelled, which could be dangerous if different medicines get mixed up and taken at the wrong time.

Some medicines do not work as well once they have be removed from the packaging, such as tablets or capsules that come in blister packs. As well as showing the name of the medicine, the packaging usually protects it as well.

If you have trouble opening childproof containers, ask your pharmacist if an alternative container is available.

If you store medicines out of sight and reach of children, you might not need a childproof container.

For more information listen to the 'how safe is your medicine cabinet' podcast.

What to do with unused medicine:

Medicines are expensive so do not ask for more than you need. It is not advisable to ask for a bigger supply to save for another occasion and some medicines expire very quickly.

If your doctor decides to stop treatment with a medicine, return any unused liquids, tablets or capsules to the pharmacist.

Do not flush them down the toilet or throw them away.

Do not hoard medicines after you are finished with them. It is a good idea to check your medicine cabinet on a regular basis, returning any unused or unwanted medicines to the pharmacist for disposal.

Ref: 07F386 © GOSH Trust November 2007
Compiled by the Pharmacy department in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group
This information does not constitute health or medical advice and will not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. If you have any questions, please ask your doctor. No liability can be taken as a result of using this information.