M Parley’s Quick Start Guide to Understanding Your Medication

by Dr Makini McGuire-Brown

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We did a previous series on tips for understanding your diagnosis and what questions you should ask your doctor to help you understand! But what good is understanding the diagnosis without understanding the treatment right?! Many times, treatment involves medication. People are often quite suspicious or concerned about medications and this is understandable. So here is M Parley’s Quick Start Guide to Understanding Your Medication!

Let’s establish first that even though the word drug currently has a negative connotation, almost EVERYTHING is a DRUG! Including WATER! A drug is anything that affects how your cells function and so using the right amount in your body is what’s most important. Too much or too little water can both kill you. Drugs are not bad and in fact many drugs come from plants, both helpful ones such as the active ingredient in Aspirin and harmful ones such as cocaine! The point is that the most important thing is understanding as much as you can about the drug and how it works to help your body as well as any other effects that it has.

The pharmacology of a drug can be pretty complicated but as usual M Parley is here to break it down. into information relevant to you! Let the Quick Start Guide begin!

  1. What is the name of the drug?
    • This is the first thing that a medical professional wants to know! It is really difficult to help a patient when they don’t even know the name of the drugs that they are on. This is a simple but important first step. It is also helpful to know both the Brand name and the Generic/chemical name of the drug that you are on. An example of this would be Panadol and Tylenol are both brand names for Paracetamol or Acetaminophen. 4 names for the same drug! You should at least know 1 of them!
  2. What diagnosis is this drug treating?
    • You should know which of your conditions each drug treats. This helps in understanding which part of your body is being affected by the drug and what effects taking or not taking the drugs will have. It also help you keep track of your diagnoses! Some patients are on Nexium and don’t know that they have acid reflux! (Or any of the other conditions that Nexium can help with.)
  3. What is the main effect of the drug?
    • This means knowing how exactly the drug works to treat your condition and how effective is it, that is, what kind of results should you look out for. For example, some blood pressure medications treat high blood pressure by decreasing the strength of the force of the contraction from the heart, some clear salt and water from the body, while other still decrease the heart rate. Knowing what your particular medication does is essential for understanding the tips that follow.
  4. What other effects can the drug have on my body?
    • One drug can do more than one thing. Understanding these extra effects is very important. Not all extra effects are bad and so a “side-effect” is not always a bad thing, it just means it’s in addition to the main effect being desired. Never forget (or now you know) that the most popular known use of the drug Viagra, was actually a side effect of the research! Viagra or sildenafil is a heart medication! What symptoms should you look out for? Ask!
  5. Which of these other effects are bad?
    • Out of those side effects, you now want to know about adverse effects, or which of the side effects are bad. Bad can be a wide range from it gives you a mild headache to it can precipitate a bone marrow crisis. What symptoms should you look out for? Ask!
  6. How common are these bad effects?
    • To determine the value of the drug for you, you must always weigh the benefits and risks. To do this you need to know how well the main effect of the drug works, but also how common the bad side effects are. Bone marrow crises are extremely rare and so if the drug will treat your Lupus, it is likely worth it, because Lupus will kill you if left untreated.
  7. How can these effects be avoided?
    • Certain adverse effects can be avoided. When taking many anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, there is a risk of stomach bleeding, this can be significantly reduced by eating before you take your medication.
  8. What dose of the drug should be taken?
    • The correct dose ensures maximum main effect and very little adverse effect. That is always the objective. It is very important to understand your dosage so that you always take it correctly and so that you can explain and share this dosage with another health professional that does not know your history. Many drugs have varying dosages that are used in practice. You need to know which one works for you.
  9. How should the drug be taken?
    • Is this a tablet? chewable? injectable? patch? syrup? inhaler? How should you take the drug and according to the route of intake, what is the proper technique? Many patients with asthma remain uncontrolled simply because they do not have the proper inhaler technique! The drug is not properly getting into their system! Find out the best way to take your drug. With water? juice? after meals? before meals? Can I cut the tablet? (Unless there’s a score mark, the answer is no!)
  10. How often should the drug be taken?
    • You should understand how many times per day and with how many hours in between your drug should be taken. Also ask about what to do if you miss a dose. Get an idea of how much of this drug is too much.
  11. At what time of day should the drug be taken?
    • Some drugs should always be taken in the morning or in the evening. Other drugs have to be on a strict schedule in which there is very little room for error and missing doses. Find out how important timing is for your drug.
  12. What should I not combine with this drug?
    • Most drugs should not be combined with alcohol but there are also other strange seemingly innocent foods that totally disrupt how some drugs work. For instance, spinach is no friend to those on warfarin, a blood thinner. Ask about which foods and drinks should not be combined with your medication.

This should get you off started on the right foot! These questions will steer the conversation in the right direction and help you to understand your medication.

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Published by Dr. Makini McGuire-Brown

God-Lover, Mother, Wife, Physician, MBA, Language-Lover, Arts-Lover, Happy Caribbean Girl!

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