Making Your Medication Work Better

woman researching her prescription on tablet

Medication has come a long way in helping us lower our risks of heart disease by managing high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels and helping prevent stroke.

But patients have an important role in making sure those medications work.

Dan Roden, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, has these tips for helping your medication work more effectively.

  1. Take your medication as directed.  “The biggest problem we face is convincing people to take their medicines regularly,” Dr. Roden said. “At least 20 percent of the medicines we prescribe never get taken, according to some estimates.” Tracking your medication in an online tool can help you keep track and set reminders to take your medication(s).
  2. Keep your medication organized. It isn’t unusual for heart patients to have 10 different medications, making keeping track difficult, Dr. Roden said. Learn ways to manage your medication and keep track using easy tools or our printable medication tracker (PDF)(link opens in new window). Or use a pill dispenser that helps sort your medication.
  3. Take your medicine even if you don’t have noticeable symptoms.  When you have the sniffles or a fever, you know you’re probably sick. But many cardiovascular conditions don’t have symptoms that you can identify without a doctor’s test or blood pressure reading.
  4. Continue taking medicine even if symptoms seem to have “gotten better.” “We hear from patients all the time, “My cholesterol used to be high but now it’s fine, so I stopped taking my medicine,” Dr. Roden said. “That’s misconception, because the medication may be what is making your cholesterol levels go down and if you stop taking it, they’ll go back up.”
  5. Tell your doctors and pharmacist about all the medications you are taking. Drug interactions can change the way a medication works, making it more effective, less effective or worse, combine to create a dangerous mix. Maintain a list of all the medication you’re taking, including drug names and dose, Dr. Roden said. “Many patients won’t mention a drug they take because it’s not a heart medicine,” Dr. Roden said. “The prescriber needs to know about all the other drugs you’re taking.”
  6. Make sure your doctors and pharmacist know about other supplements or over-the-counter drugs you may be taking. Your healthcare providers need to have the whole picture of what you’re taking so they can create a plan for the most effective treatment and identify possible interactions.  Inform your health care providers of all the over-the-counter drugs and herbal and/or nutritional supplements you are taking, including the names and dose. If you have high blood pressure and certainly if you are on prescription medication, consult your healthcare professional before taking any over-the-counter medications or supplements.
  7. Be aware of any food interactions. Check whether your medication should be taking on a full stomach or an empty one. That could affect how well your body absorbs it, Dr. Roden said. What you eat and drink may also make a big difference. Drinking alcohol, for example, could change how well your kidneys process medication. Even eating healthy can sometimes create a dangerous interaction between your medication(s) and the food and/or beverages you consume. Learn more about food and medication interactions.
  8. Be aware of potential side effects. Medication routinely comes with a pamphlet of detailed information about possible side effects. Familiarize yourself with the major ones and stay vigilant when starting a new medication so you can quickly identify bad reactions, Dr. Roden said. “Stomach aches, fever or rash are common side effects, but many people don’t realize they may be coming from a medication,” he said. Be sure your doctor knows if you’ve had any bad reactions or allergies to medication.

Medication is only one part of your treatment plan.

Taking medication as directed is important, but it’s not the only action needed by a patient.  Lifestyle changes, such as following a heart-healthy diet and physical activity, play a key role in getting your health back on track.

“Taking cholesterol-lowering medication doesn’t mean you can eat a pound of bacon,” Dr. Roden said.

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