Prescription Medicines

Overview

There are many types of prescription medicines used to treat many medical problems. Your doctor and your pharmacist are your best sources to learn about your prescription medicines.

Guidelines for taking every kind of prescription medicine could fill a whole shelf of books. This topic gives you basic information about antibiotics, minor tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria. But they only work against bacteria. They don't kill viruses, so they won't work against a cold, the flu, or another viral illness. Unless you have a bacterial infection, it's best to avoid the possible harmful effects of antibiotics, which may include:

  • Side effects. Antibiotics can cause nausea and diarrhea and can make you more sensitive to sunlight. Most of these common side effects are mild. But some side effects, such as allergic reactions, can be severe. They can cause shortness of breath or even death. If you have an unexpected reaction to an antibiotic, tell your doctor before you try another medicine.
  • Other infections. Antibiotics kill most of the bacteria in your body that are sensitive to them, even the "good" bacteria that help your body. Antibiotics can ruin the balance of bacteria in your body, leading to an upset stomach, diarrhea, vaginal infections, or other problems.
  • Bacterial resistance. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to have some bacteria that the medicine doesn't kill. Over time, these bacteria change and become harder to kill. They become resistant to the medicine. The antibiotics that used to kill them no longer work.

If you and your doctor decide that you need an antibiotic, carefully follow the instructions for taking the medicine.

  • Take the whole dose for as many days as your doctor tells you to, unless you have side effects you did not expect (in which case, call your doctor).
  • Be sure you know any special instructions for taking the medicine. They should be printed on the label, but it’s also a good idea to check with your doctor and pharmacist.
  • Keep antibiotics in a cool, dry place. Check the label to see if you should store them in the refrigerator.
  • Never give an antibiotic prescribed for one person to someone else.
  • Do not save any extra antibiotics. And do not take one prescribed for another illness unless your doctor tells you it is okay. Ask your pharmacist about how to safely throw away your leftover medicine.

Minor Tranquilizers and Sleeping Pills

Some minor tranquilizers (such as Valium and Xanax) and sleeping pills (such as Ambien and Sonata) are widely prescribed. But these medicines can cause problems such as memory loss, addiction, and loss of balance. In rare cases, people who use them have done things like drive or eat while they're still asleep. These medicines also can cause a serious allergic reaction. So it’s important to use them with caution.

Minor tranquilizers can be useful if you use them for a short time. But long-term use often isn't very helpful, and it increases the risk of addiction and mental problems.

Sleeping pills may help for a few days or a few weeks. But if you use them for more than a month, they are likely to cause more sleep problems than they solve. For other options, see the topic Sleep Problems.

If you have been taking minor tranquilizers or sleeping pills for a while, talk with your doctor. Ask if you can stop taking the medicine or if you can gradually take less of it over time. If you have felt unsteady or dizzy, have had any memory loss, or have had signs of an allergic reaction, tell your doctor.

Medicine Problems

There are many kinds of bad reactions to medicine. See the medication guidelines for tips on how to avoid common problems from medicines.

Side effects. Side effects are bad reactions to a medicine. They tend to be mild, but they can still bother you. In some cases, side effects can be serious.

Allergies. Some people have strong reactions to some medicines. These reactions can be deadly. To learn the signs of an allergic reaction, see the topic Allergic Reaction.

Medicine interactions. These happen when two or more medicines or herbal supplements mix in a person's body and cause a bad reaction. The symptoms can be severe and may be wrongly diagnosed as a new illness.

Medicine-food interactions. These happen when medicines react with food. Some drugs work best when you take them with food, but others should be taken on an empty stomach. Some medicine-food interactions can cause serious symptoms.

Overmedication. Sometimes the full adult dose of a medicine is too much for people over age 60 and for people who weigh less than the average adult. Taking too much of a medicine can be dangerous.

Addiction. Long-term use of some medicines can lead to dependency. You may have a severe reaction if you stop taking the medicine all at once. To make sure that you don't get addicted, use caution when you take certain medicines. To learn more, see the topic Alcohol and Drug Problems.

Credits

Author Caroline Rea, RN, BS, MS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Last Updated May 1, 2008

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