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Things You Should Know: Taking Prescription Medications

While prescription medications have enabled us to overcome or cure illnesses that were often fatal only decades ago, prescription medications can also be confusing, dangerous, and expensive. The following contains information on how to read prescriptions, how to take them, and how to respect them.

Did you Know . . . ?: The Meaning of Prescriptions

  • The word "prescription" comes from the Latin "praescriptus." Praescriptus is made up of two Latin roots, "prae," meaning "before" and "scribere," meaning to write." In other words, "prescription" means "to write before," which reflects the historical fact that a prescription traditionally had to be written before a drug could be mixed and administered to a patient.

  • Each prescription has four parts:

  • Superscription: The heading where the symbol R or Rx is located.

  • Inscription: The area of the prescription that contains the names and quantities of the ingredients or drugs.

  • Subscription: The directions for compounding or mixing the drug.

  • Signature: Often preceded by the sign "s," this is the portion of the prescription that gives the directions to be marked on the bottle, vial, or container.

  • A Glossary of Common Prescription Abbreviations

  • Does it ever seem to you that every physician must have taken a course in medical school called "How to Write in Chicken-Scratch"? Physicians are notorious for having incomprehensibly poor penmanship. While you may not worry about having to read their notes in your medical chart, you may be more worried about a pharmacist being able to read their prescriptions for you. Once you get your prescription, you may not understand all of the abbreviations and notations on the label. If you don't, you might find the following glossary helpful.

    a.c.: before meals, from the Latin "ante cibum"
    ad lib: use as much as one desires, from the Latin "ad libitum"
    b.i.d.: twice a day, from the Latin "bis in die"
    caps: capsules
    da or daw: "dispense as written.
    g or gm or GM: gram
    gtt.: drops, from the Latin "guttae"
    h: hour
    mg: milligram
    ml: milliliter
    pc: after meals, from the Latin "post cibum"
    p.o.: by mouth, or orally, from the Latin "per os"
    p.r.n.: when necessary, or as circumstances require, from the Latin "pro re nata"
    q.d.: once a day, from the Latin "quaque die"
    q.i.d.: four times a day, from the Latin "quater in die"
    q.h.: used where a medicine has to be taken every so-many hours, from the Latin "quaque," meaning
    "every," and "h" indicating the number of hours

    Examples:
    q.h.: every hour
    q.2h.: every two hours
    q.3h.: every three hours
    q.4h.: every four hours

    R or Rx: recipe, which means, in Latin, "to take"
    s: signa mark, often used at the beginning of a prescription to signify the
    directions to be marked on the container
    t.i.d.: three times a day, from the Latin "ter in die"
    ut dict.: as directed, from the Latin "ut dictum"

    Smarts, Safety, and Prescriptions

    Prescription medications can be beneficial, while at the same time they may be dangerous. If you abuse prescription medications or fail to take them correctly you may have a serious adverse reaction. While your doctor is responsible for prescribing the right medication, and your pharmacist is in charge of filling the prescription, you are responsible for taking the medications and assisting your doctor and pharmacist in any way that you can. Here are some tips on how you can fulfill those responsibilities.

    • Make sure that your physicians know what medications you are on, including over-the-counter medications and alternative medicines. If your physician is contemplating prescribing medications to you, he or she needs to make sure that they won't have a dangerous reaction with any other medications you are taking.

    • If possible, keep all of your medical care in the same group or practice so your physician can easily access your medical information and review your prescription medications. If you have to see other physicians or specialists, make sure that they receive your chart from your primary care physician, or ask them to speak with your primary care physician before prescribing any medications.

    • Keep track of your medications by making a list of their names and the instructions for their use. This may be particularly beneficial if you are on many different types of medications for many different conditions. Keep the list in a place where you can refer to it easily.

    • Consider placing a smaller version of your medications list in your purse or wallet. That way, you will be able to reference it if you are not at home and a question arises regarding what medications you are on.

    • If you have severe allergic reactions to certain medications, wear an identification bracelet with the information on it. In an emergency situation, if you are unable to communicate for yourself, the information on that bracelet could save your life.

    • Read your prescription labels carefully and follow any restrictions or warnings. Understand which medications may affect or impair your physical or cognitive skills and refrain from operating dangerous machinery while you are on those medications.

    Example: If a prescription says that it should be taken on an empty stomach, follow that instruction so that you can receive the maximum benefit of the medication.

    Note: If you have difficulty seeing, ask if your pharmacist can use a larger print size on your prescription bottles.

    • Only take the dosages that your doctor has approved. If you feel that any medication you are taking is not having its intended effect, call the prescribing physician. Ask if you can take more, or if you should be on a different type of medication.

    Note: In the same respect, if you feel that a medication is working too powerfully, ask your prescribing physician before you cut back on the dosage.

    • If you are having any adverse or abnormal reactions to your prescription medications, contact your physician immediately.

    • Pharmacists have been known to make mistakes. Ask them to triple check it. Also, many pills have an identifier, which is either the name of the drug or a code. Check the pills yourself to see if they have an identifier, and make sure it is correct.

    • If you have young children in your household, make sure that you have child-proof caps on your medicine bottles. Keep the bottles away from anyone who may not understand their use or potency.

    Note: Even if you do not live with children, make sure that you place your medications in a safe location if you have children visiting you, or if you are visiting a home that has children.

    • Never take another person's prescription medication. Although you may feel that you have similar symptoms, or a similar condition, you can't be certain that you won't have an adverse reaction to their medication or that dosage.

    • If you are traveling, make sure that you keep a small supply of your medications in your carry-on bag or purse. If you place all of your medications in your checked luggage and the airline loses it, you could be in trouble. Not only may you miss some of your doses of medication, you will also have to call your doctor to get a new prescription called in to a pharmacy near you.

    • If you do not have health insurance, or if your health insurance does not cover prescription medications, ask if you can receive a generic form of a drug. Many drugs are marketed in a generic format that can be much cheaper (and just as effective, given the fact it is made of the same ingredients) than the "brand-name" drug.

    Next Steps
    Contact a qualified health care attorney to help
    navigate legal issues around your health care.
    (e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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