Understanding your prescription medication is essential.
Though many people consider the medications prescribed to them by a doctor to be safe, the truth is that, if not taken as instructed, dangerous health effects can result. This goes beyond just taking the correct dose. It includes knowing what to do if you miss a dose, how careful to be if you have to cut pills into pieces, and how to look out for symptoms of overdose.

General Instructions

Each container of a prescription medication should include clear instructions on how to use it. For pills, it will tell you how many pills to take and how many times per day that amount of pills should be taken. It may include what time of day to take the pills and include instructions to take it with food, water, or on an empty stomach. If it doesn’t specify on the bottle, it generally means that it doesn’t matter either way. However, doctors may specify otherwise, and if there’s any uncertainty, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Prescriptions also often come with specific warnings in bold lettering. Common warnings can include:

  • Do not mix with alcohol
  • May cause drowsiness
  • Take with food
  • Do not take with nitrates
  • Keep in refrigerator
  • For external use only

Always follow these instructions. Warnings like “may cause drowsiness” are mean to be an indicator of activities you should avoid doing while taking the medication. For example, drowsiness reduces one’s ability to safely operate heavy machinery, and this includes vehicles.

Different Dosages

You may notice that different prescription drugs have vastly different dosages. Most drugs come in grams or milligrams, written as “g” and “mg,” respectively. Some may even come in micrograms, written either as mcg or μg. The reason for this is that different drugs have different potencies.

Highly potent drugs will be prescribed in micrograms because less is needed for the drug to be effective. Less potent drugs may have to be prescribed in grams or they won’t help at all. This is a very important distinction as going from micrograms to milligrams is a difference in amount by a factor of one thousand. Taking a milligram of a potent drug like the opioid fentanyl, typically prescribed in just a couple micrograms, would instantly kill a person.

This is also important to understand when a drug is prescribed in liquid form. Often, these drugs will come with either measuring cups or droppers. Never use a measuring cup or dropper from one medication for another, as they could have completely different potencies and therefore would be measured differently.

Recognizing Overdose

If you ever end up accidentally taking more than the instructed dose, contact your doctor immediately. If your doctor is not available, try a poison control center. In 2014, overdose deaths from all prescription drugs topped 25,000 in the US alone.

If you’re unsure, there are several symptoms that can indicate an overdose. Overdose symptoms vary with each type of drug involved, but you can usually tell if you’re feeling different than you typically do after taking your medication. Look out for symptoms such as:

  • Serious anxiety or depression
  • Agitation
  • Rapid heartbeat or weak pulse
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech

An overdose on any drug can be very serious. If you’re experiencing these symptoms and think an overdose is to blame, seek emergency medical services immediately.