If you take prescription medications, it’s important to keep certain things in mind for your safety and well-being.

When taking a prescription medication, especially for the first time, you should be aware that it may cause side effects. When picking it up, the pharmacist should give you information about any possible side effects and reactions that may occur when taking the medication.

“Side effects can be minor, like nausea or heartburn, or worse, such as difficulty breathing or bleeding,” says Marco DelBove, PharmD, BCPS, pharmacy clinical coordinator at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island. The side effects, he adds, usually lessen after a while.

“If you have any side effects, tell your doctor right away,” says Beverly JL Fitzpatrick, BS, RPh, medication management and safety coordinator at Memorial.

For some drugs, your doctor may start you on a low dose and ask you to work up to a full dose.

“This is usually to see the medication’s effects on your body and may prevent certain side effects from occurring,” DelBove explains.

If you miss a dose, ask your doctor or pharmacist how to proceed. For some drugs, you can take a double dose but for others you may have to skip it.

Storage, expiration dates, and more

Store most medications at a comfortable room temperature and away from direct light or moisture, as Fitzpatrick says extreme temperatures can affect the potency.

Some drugs, however, require refrigeration or even freezing. Storage instructions should be on the label and the leaflet you receive at the pharmacy.

“Use your medication before the expiration date listed on the package,” DelBove says. “Expired medications may not work to their full potential.” In fact, some drugs can turn into toxic substances as they age.

When looking to dispose of old, unused prescriptions, ask your pharmacy if it has a take-back program. If you prefer to dispose of meds yourself, remove them from the original container and mix them with an undesirable substance (like coffee grinds or kitty litter) in a can or plastic bottle. Throw the container in your regular trash. Do not flush meds down the toilet or sink because they may contaminate the water system.

Decisions, decisions

For certain medications, you may have the option to choose between a brand name and a generic drug that can be less expensive.

“Generics contain the same active ingredients (but sometimes different amounts) as the brand name drug. The only differences may be color, size, markings, or shape,” DelBove says.

Most states require standards for generic equivalents and require that generic drugs be dispensed unless your doctor indicates that the brand is necessary.

One-Stop Shopping

In addition to convenience, it is best to have all of your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so the pharmacist can keep track of your medications and be sure that there are no interactions among them.

“The pharmacist can also make sure you’re getting the most appropriate medications for your medical conditions,” DelBove says. “Tell your pharmacist about any over-the-counter or herbal products you take as well.”

If you have any questions about your medications, contact your pharmacist or the physician who prescribed them.