Medication Safety

If you are admitted to the hospital, you will be asked what medications you have been taking at home, including any herbal supplements, vitamins, and over-the-counter medications. Click here for a wallet card to help you track your medications. Hospitals and physicians must list all of the home medications you take and compare it with the new medications your physician orders for you while you are in the hospital. This is called “ reconciliation” and it is a very important part of medication safety—it helps make sure you receive the proper medications while you are in the hospital, and after you are discharged. 

Medication safety is a critical part of patient safety, whether you are hospitalized or at home.  Understanding what medications you are taking and why, and knowing the proper dosage, possible side effects, and interactions are all extremely important.  The following section provides useful general information about medication safety.

Understand Your Prescriptions

When the doctor writes you a prescription, it is important that you are able to read and understand the directions for taking the medication. Doctors and pharmacists often use abbreviations or terms that may not be familiar. Here is an explanation of some of the most common abbreviations you will see on the labels of your prescription medications:

Abbreviation Explanation Abbreviation Explanation
p.r.n. as needed a.c. before meals
q.d. every day p.c. after meals
b.i.d. twice a day h.s. at bedtime
t.i.d. three times a day p.o. by mouth
q.i.d. four times a day ea. each

If you have questions about your prescription or how you should take the medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist. If you do not understand the directions, make sure you ask someone to explain them. It is important to take the medicine as directed by your doctor.

Throw away your old medicines safely

Now is a great time to see if any of your medicines should be discarded because they are too old or no longer needed. On prescription bottles, the label will often tell you when the medicine should be discarded. On over-the-counter medicines and sample medicines, the expiration date (the date it should be discarded) is often printed on the label under "EXP," or stamped without ink into the bottom of a bottle, carton, or the crimp of a tube. For medicines without an expiration date, unless you know you purchased it within the past year, it's best to toss it. As time passes, medicines may lose their effectiveness, especially if they are stored in a medicine cabinet in a warm, moist bathroom. In rare cases, outdated medicines could become toxic. For example, taking expired tetracycline (an antibiotic) can cause serious kidney problems.

In the past, most people flushed old medicines down the toilet. This was done to prevent accidental poisonings of children and animals who may find medicines in the trash. But today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) no longer recommends this. Sewage treatment plants may not be able to clean all medicines out of the water. This may harm fish and wildlife.

The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say just three small steps can make a huge difference:

  1. DO NOT FLUSH unused medications. Consumers were once advised to flush their expired or unused medications; however, recent environmental impact studies report that this could be having an adverse impact on the environment. While the rule of thumb is not to flush, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that certain medications should be flushed due to their abuse potential. Read the instructions on your medication and talk to your pharmacist.
  2. When tossing unused medications, protect children and pets from the potentially negative effects. APhA recommends that consumers:
    • Crush solid medications or dissolve them in water (this applies for liquid medications as well) and mix with kitty litter or sawdust (or any material that absorbs the dissolved medication and makes it less appealing for pets or children to eat), then place in a sealed plastic bag BEFORE tossing in the trash.
    • Remove and destroy ALL identifying personal information (prescription label) from the medication container.
    • Check for approved state and local collection programs or with area hazardous waste facilities. In certain states, you may be able to take your unused medications to your community pharmacy.
  3. Talk To Your Pharmacist. Research shows that pharmacists are one of the most accessible healthcare professionals. As the medication experts on the healthcare team, pharmacists are available to guide you on how to properly dispose of your unused medications.

Following these simple steps can help protect your family and community, minimize a potential negative impact on the environment, and prevent the illegal diversion of unused medications.