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Medicine Safety

Managing medicines is a challenge for patients and caregivers. Families often juggle multiple medicines. Each may have a different dose, frequency, and method of administration. It is easy to get overwhelmed. But, there are things families can do to stay on top of medicines.

Keep a record of all medicines

Make sure your child’s medication list and drug information is kept in a way that is simple to use.

Be sure that all caregivers have access to drug information and instructions. Many families like to keep information in a binder so that it is organized and easy to refer to when needed.

Remember to take the medication list with you each time you visit your doctor or pharmacy.

See My Medication List™ for an example.

Be clear on instructions

For each medicine, write down specific instructions on how to take the medicine including:

  • Dose of medicine – How much of the drug should be taken each time? How should it be measured (pill, syringe, medicine cup)? Remember not to use home measuring units such as teaspoons or tablespoons.
  • Medication schedule - How often should the medicine be taken and what time of day?
  • Special instructions for administration – How should the drug be taken (with or without food, before bedtime)?

Ask about refill procedures for each medicine. Some of your medicines may need additional steps by the doctor or pharmacist due to specific requirements for safety, drug availability, or other considerations. Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about any special procedures, and find out when you need to start the refill process. Write down the specific instructions for each medicine, such as “Call the pharmacy when you have 5 pills remaining.”

Write down specific instructions on how to take each medicine prescribed. Notes should include dose, schedule, and specific instructions for administration.

Write down specific instructions on how to take each medicine prescribed. Notes should include dose, schedule, and specific instructions for administration.

Know your medicines

It is important to have basic information for each medicine prescribed. This does several things:

  • Helps prevent medication errors
  • Promotes better communication between family and care team
  • Gives patients and families more control and engagement in the treatment plan

Older children and adolescents can learn to take part in managing medications in age- and medically-appropriate ways.

Keep this information in your records:

Name of the medicine – What is the brand and generic name of the medicine? Medicines often go by several different names. Be sure to know how the drug name appears on the medication label of the container. Do not refer to medicines by “the orange pill” or “hydro something.” Many medicines look alike and have similar names. Knowing the specific name of each medicine helps prevent confusion and errors.

Purpose of the medicine – What is the medicine used for? Know what each drug does and why it is prescribed. For example, is the medicine a chemotherapy drug, a pain medicine, or an antibiotic? Understanding what each medicine is used for can help families communicate with the care team and pharmacist. Knowing why a drug is needed can also promote medication adherence (taking the medication when and how you are supposed to). Knowing what medicines do can also help prevent drug-related dangers such as interactions or overmedicating.

Side effects – What are common side effects of the medicine? Medicines often have a long list of possible side effects. Some might be very likely while others might be rare. Knowing potential side effects can help families watch for reactions and catch signs early. 

Appearance - What does the medicine look like? Knowing what each medicine looks like can help prevent medication errors. Write down the description, or take a picture with your cell phone. Contact your pharmacist if your medicine looks or tastes different from usual. It may be the same medication, but it might be prepared differently. Or, there might be a mistake. It is always better to ask questions and be safe.

Storage – How should the medicine be stored? Some medicines should be refrigerated. Others should be stored at room temperature. Avoid storing medicines in humid areas like bathrooms. Certain medicines may expire quickly once they are prepared. Follow instructions for storage to make sure that medicines work as they are supposed to. Be sure to keep medicines out of the reach of children. Ask your pharmacist how to dispose of unused medicines.

Other Precautions – Are there other special safety measures for the medicine? Some medicines, like chemotherapy, can pose a risk to caregivers. Follow instructions for safe handling. These may include as wearing gloves, proper disposal of medication and supplies, and avoiding patient body fluids.

Interactions – Should certain foods, supplements, or over-the counter medications be avoided when taking this medicine? Interactions may interfere with a medicine and lessen the effectiveness. A drug interaction may pose a serious health risk to patients.

Tips to manage medicines

At home:

  • Store medicines in the original container.
  • Keep medicines and dosing supplies organized in a specific location.
  • Use charts, calendars, or alerts to remind you when to give medicine.
  • Keep a consistent schedule.
  • Track when medicine is given to avoid missed or extra doses.
  • Be aware of remaining doses so you don’t run out of medicine.

At the pharmacy:

  • Get all medicines from the same pharmacy, and get to know your pharmacist.
  • Let your pharmacist know about any allergies (medicines, environmental, or foods).
  • At the pharmacy, check each prescription carefully, and ask questions before you leave.
  • Make sure all label information is clear and readable.
  • Write down information. Don’t rely on memory.

Tools for keeping track of your medicine list

  • Keep a medication chart or calendar. Use stickers or color coding for each medicine.
  • Use a mobile app to track medicines. Several different apps are available that offer alerts and tracking features.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist for a list of medications and patient education handouts for each.

Create your own pill card at

Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist

  • What should I do in case of a missed dose?
  • What should I do in case of an extra dose?
  • What should I do if my child vomits after taking the medicine?
  • What should I do if my child has problems taking the medicine?
  • Can the medicine be mixed into food or drink?
  • Can the tablet or pill be crushed or cut in half?
  • Is the medicine harmful to caregivers?
  • What should I do if I run out of medicine or supplies?

Learn more about medication safety from

does not endorse any branded product mentioned in this article.

Reviewed: June 2018