More than 66% of adults in the United States – approximately 131 million people – use prescription drugs, according to the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University.
Adjusting to a new prescription medication can be a learning experience, especially since some drugs don’t produce results right away or cause changes you can feel. Here are some general guidelines to help advise on the process.
What to ask your health care provider before starting a new medication
It’s always a good idea to talk to your health care provider about any new medication they want to prescribe for you. Some questions to start that conversation could include:
- What is this for?
- How do I take it?
- What are the benefits and risks?
- What side effects should I look out for? How can I either avoid or manage these side effects if they do occur?
- How long will it take for the drug to work? How will we know it’s working?
- Should I avoid certain foods, beverages or other products while I am taking this medication?
- Does this conflict with anything else I am taking – including other prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs or herbal supplements?
- Are there any alternatives to the medication – including diet, exercise or other lifestyle changes?
Understanding medication instructions
Take time to carefully read the medication label on any new drug to understand the dosage, how to administer it, how often to take it, how it needs to be stored and when it expires. Make sure you understand any warnings about use.
It’s important to follow your health care provider’s instructions and take the medication exactly as prescribed. Consider using organizational tools, like a pill sorter or pill box, as well as reminder alarms such as on a smartphone, to help keep you on track.
If for some reason you miss a dose or run out of medication, contact your health care provider or pharmacist right away so they can guide you on next steps.
How long to wait before a medication starts working
How quickly you will feel the full effects of a medication when you take it for the first time depends on the drug. Of course, it can be easy to expect that you’ll feel the effects right away. Some drugs do work like that – including asthma inhalers, beta blockers and antacids.
But some drugs don’t work like that. Some take weeks – and others take months. For example:
- Statin drugs that are used to lower cholesterol take weeks to block the enzymes in the liver that make cholesterol. Often you won’t be able to feel the effects, but you will know whether the drug is working through follow up visits with your healthcare provider who is monitoring you.
- Medications that are used to treat depression are also known to take a few weeks to see some onset of symptom improvement, and can take typically about two months to produce their full intended effects.
Managing side effects of a new medication
As your body adjusts to a new medication, it may bring new or unfamiliar symptoms.
Side effects can vary in severity for each person – and some may decrease over time as your body adjusts. Keep your healthcare provider up to date on any side effects you are not expecting or that become troublesome. If side effects begin to interfere with your everyday life, talk with your health care provider about your concerns.
Depending on the medication, there may be ways to mitigate the side effects of a new drug, including taking it at a certain time of day, taking a medication on a full or empty stomach, or with a supplement. The strategy will vary depending on which specific medication, so always talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist for advice.
Side effects are not the same as a drug allergy.
A drug allergy is a potentially life-threatening reaction to a medication and requires immediate medical intervention. The most common signs of a drug allergy often occur right after taking a medication and include hives, rash or fever. In serious, rare cases, a drug reaction can cause anaphylaxis – signs of which include constricted airways, throat swelling, trouble breathing, dizziness and rapid heartbeat. Seek emergency medical attention right away by calling 911 if you experience a severe reaction to a new medication.
When to talk to your health care provider
As you are transitioning to a new medication, consider tracking your symptoms for the first several weeks. It can be helpful to write down any changes in your health condition symptoms, any side effects (including severity), and generally how you are feeling. That way you can have a written record of notes for reference to help guide any conversations you have with your health care provider about how the medication is affecting you.
Contact your health care provider right away if your symptoms are getting worse, or if you have new symptoms.
If you aren’t finding relief of symptoms and you’re concerned that your new medication isn’t working, talk with your health care provider to get their evaluation and whether there may be an alternative, more effective option to try.
In general, before you stop taking any medication, talk with your health care provider first. Some medications need to be stopped slowly over a matter of days and weeks in order to prevent worsened symptoms or other side effects.