Medication Safety at Home

| Posted On Mar 21, 2011 | By:

Medicine pill bottlesRecently, a number of factors have led to a fairly rapid rise in serious and fatal medication errors occurring in the home.  As our population ages and more and more people are taking multiple medications, studies suggest that many errors are directly related to combining prescription medications from different health care providers who were unaware of all the medications – including over the counter medications and herbal or vitamin supplements – being taken by patients.  Studies also show an increase in people taking prescribed medications with alcohol or illegal drugs. And many medication errors that happen at home are occurring when valid prescriptions are taken the wrong way or when medications are stopped abruptly without consulting a health care provider.

In order to reduce the risk of medication errors and mishaps in your home and with your loved ones, we suggest you follow these tips to keep you and your family safe:

  1. Do not share your prescription medications with others.
  2. Properly dispose of your expired and discontinued medications. Expired medications can lose their effectiveness, and keeping discontinued medications in your home can increase the risk for medication mix-ups or improper use by others. Drug addictions often begin with the inappropriate use of medications left over from others’ prescription supplies.
  3. Always follow the instructions from your health care provider regarding how much or how often you should take your medications.
  4. Read each label on a medication bottle before taking out a dose to ensure you are taking the right dose for that medication.
  5. Become familiar with what your medication looks like and discuss any appearance changes with your pharmacist.
  6. Don’t chew, crush or break any capsules or tablets unless instructed. Some long-acting medications are absorbed too quickly when chewed, making them potentially unsafe. Other medications either won’t be effective or could make you sick if they are not swallowed whole.
  7. For liquid medications, use only the measuring device that came with the medication or is intended to measure medications in the right dose range. Over- or under-dosing can occur if the correct device is not used.  Note that household teaspoons and tablespoons are not very accurate. Ask your pharmacist for an appropriate measuring device (like an oral syringe) if you do not have one or one is not provided.
  8. Do not stop any of your medications without first discussing it with your clinician. Many medications need to be slowly reduced in either the size or the frequency of the dose before stopping to prevent harmful effects.
  9. Never combine more than one type of medication in the same bottle. Instead, use a pill-box to keep pills for the same day and time together. Consider making a printed schedule to keep track of multiple medications that need to be taken throughout the day.
  10. Keep your medications in set locations so it is easier for you to remember to take them each day.
  11. Don’t keep tubes of medicine, ointments or creams next to your tube of toothpaste.
  12. Keep a list of your current medications (including over-the-counter medications and herbal or nutritional supplements) in your wallet and show it to every health care provider at each visit. Include any medication and food allergies on this list as well.
  13. Make sure a family member, friend or neighbor knows what medications you take, and where to find them or a list of them in your home in case of an emergency.  Consider posting this list on your refrigerator or the inside of your dish cabinet door.
  14. Use child-proof bottles if possible, and consider locking up your medications to keep them safely away from children and pets.  People with pets should use the same precautions in handling and storing their medications as we recommend for people with children.  Pets are finding access to their owner’s medications, and medication mishaps and even fatalities are on the rise among household pets.

Want to learn more about medication safety? Here are some additional resources you may find useful:

The National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) tools for general medication users:

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) Consumer Information:

Medication Safety Tips for Parents: 

Center for Medicines and Healthy Aging (CMHA):

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About Amy Vachon, PharmD

Amy Vachon, PharmD is Director of the Atrius Health Clinical Pharmacy Program and co-chair of the Atrius Health Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee. She joined Harvard Vanguard in 1996 and has worked to grow the Clinical Pharmacy Program which provides services to patients at many of our Atrius Health locations. Prior to working at Atrius Health, Amy was the Assistant Director for Clinical Pharmacy Services at Beth Israel Hospital, and before that, she worked in the operating room at Tufts Medical Center as a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist in Anesthesia and Operating Room Pharmacy. Amy graduated with a Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Michigan, and completed a residency in pharmacy practice at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Amy is also passionate about creating the opportunity for work/life balance that allows every employee to be his or her best contributor to the workplace, and is the author, together with her husband, of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents (Perigee Penguin 2011). She’s the mother of two children and an avid amateur violinist in her spare time.



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