With over two decades of experience in medicine, Melissa Flagg writes patient education articles, keeping you informed about your health.
Can You Remember?
Why Should You Organize Your Medications?
Prescribing medications to patients is an art form. Yes, there is science behind it, but there’s also a lot of trial and error to find the right balance of medications for the individual.
Because of this, many of us are on more than one medication, and when you’re taking more than one prescription, it is vitally important to keep those prescriptions organized for a number of reasons:
- Getting your medications mixed up can be lethal.
- Forgetting to take a medication can be just as lethal.
- Should you ever have to take a ride in an ambulance, if your medications are in disarray, it will take that much longer for the EMTs to get you to the hospital.
- If you’re unconscious, you can’t tell the Emergency Room doctor what you are taking. This could be fatal if the doctor gives you a medication that interacts negatively with what you are already taking.
- It’s much more difficult for friends and family to help you with your medications if you don’t know what you’re on and why.
- If you change doctors, not having your medication information ready for the new physician can cause a delay in treatment while they request records from your former doctor.
- It’s more difficult to keep track of refills, even if your pharmacy emails you when it’s time.
- You may not know if the pharmacy has made a mistake if you haven’t kept accurate records, which can also be lethal.
- Prescription medications are often the first way physicians and nurses find out exactly what is wrong with you. Many patients have come into my office for an eye exam and told me that they were not diabetic, only to tell me five minutes later that they are on Glucophage, which is an oral medication for treating type 2 diabetes.
Abbreviating the Number of Times a Medication Is Taken
You can abbreviate the number of times per day you take your medication. This is actually beneficial for both you and your doctor and staff. Knowing these abbreviations makes it easier for you to read your doctor's prescriptions. It also makes it easier for the doctor's staff to transcribe the information into your patient chart.
|Number of Times Per Day||Abbreviation|
Once a day
Twice a day
Three times a day
Four times a day
Organizing Your Prescriptions
The first step in organizing your medications is to sit down and take an inventory so that you can create a list to keep in your wallet, on your fridge, and to give to friends and family. The mandatory items on this list should be:
- Names (both brand and generic if applicable)
- Number of times the medication is taken per day
- Prescribing doctor’s name
- How current the list is (ie: Medication List as of mm/dd/yyyy)
Optional information you should include on this list would be:
- Name and phone number of the pharmacy where the prescription is filled
- Prescription number
- Last date the prescription was filled
- Number of refills remaining
- Prescription expiration date
- Number of pills in the bottle (usually 30, 60, 90 or 120)
All of this information can be easily put into a spreadsheet, and in some cases can be printed straight from your pharmacy’s website. I created my own spreadsheet for my medications.
I have a detailed one with all of the above information, which I keep at home. I also have a basic spreadsheet (see below) that I keep in my wallet right behind my driver’s license.You can also simply right out the list. As long as the information is there, it doesn't matter what form it’s in, as long as it’s legible and organized.
My Medications Spreadsheet
It’s important to keep the list as current as possible. I update my list every month, regardless of whether or not changes have been made. You don’t necessarily have to update every month if your medications don’t change, but it should be updated at least every three to six months.
It also a good idea to print out several copies of your list. This increases the likelihood that should you be unconscious, someone else can give emergency medical personal the information they need. Another plus is that you can easily hand it to your doctor (or doctors). You can also give a copy to family members and trusted friends. Whoever you have listed as your emergency contact should absolutely have a copy of this information.
Over-the-counter medications can interact with prescription medications and cause dangerous side effects.
Ibuprofen, for example, when mixed with a beta-blocker like the blood pressure medication metoprolol can cause the medication to be ineffective, which can cause the blood pressure to rise. This can put the patient at risk for strokes or other cardiovascular events.
Therefore, it is important to also list any non-prescription medications that you may be taking (even if you only take them sporadically) on your medication list. Also, you should always check with your doctor before starting any over-the-counter medication.
Remembering to Take Your Medications
Many patients are afraid of forgetting to take their medications and for good reason. I, myself, have forgotten whether or not I have taken my medications for the day at one time or another. It happens to everyone.
However, you can prevent this from happening, or at least reduce your chances of forgetting. There are several different ways to remind yourself to take your medications:
- Set an alarm on your smart phone, computer or alarm clock for the same time every day. If you take multiple medications, set an alarm for each one. This is easier with a smart phone or computer as you can title the alarm with the name of the medication.
- Color code the tops of the prescription bottles. For example, if you take a medication only in the morning, use a green (or any other color) and mark the top of the bottle. If you take a medication twice a day, say morning and night, it gets two marks using different colors. If you take it three times a day, it gets three marks using various colors and so on.
- Make a medication “to do” list. List all your medications, and cross them off as you take them. Be sure to put the date at the top of the list.
- Move your medication bottles after you take the medication. For example, if you keep your medications on the kitchen table, move them to the kitchen counter after you take them. You could also simply turn the medication bottles upside down after you've taken your pills.
- Purchase a pill bottle with a timer on it. These pill bottles tell you when the last time the bottle was opened, as well as providing a timer and alarm function. They run about $30.00.
- Create a weekly check list using Excel or another spreadsheet program. List all of your medications and the days of the week, putting the dates at the top. When you take your medications, put a check mark in the box for that day. If you take medications more than once a day, add a check box for each dose (see example below).
Medications like those for osteoporosis are sometimes only taken once a week, or even once a month. In these cases, it is best to take the medication on the same day every week (or month) and mark it on your calendar. You can also set a reminder on your computer, Google or Outlook calendar or any other program that works for you.
Prescription Medication Bottles
Many people choose to “sort” their medications in a pill case labeled with the days of the week. While this can be a convenient way to store medications, if you can’t match the name of the medication to the pill, it is very easy to get them confused.
The photo below is the perfect example. I put my metoprolol pills (on the left) next to my tramadol pills (on the right) to illustrate just how easy it is to get medications confused when they look similar. Can you tell the difference?
Confusing medications can be a fatal mistake. For this reason, I highly recommend keeping your medications in the labeled prescription bottle in which you received them. If you take several medications (like I do), keep them in a zippered tote or even a Ziploc bag and store them in a convenient location. If you don’t have any children, you can also simply leave them on the kitchen counter or table.
If you decide to use one of the digital pill bottles discussed above, you have two choices. Make sure you can identify the pill by name just by looking at it, or purchase a digital bottle for each medication and label it with a sharpie marker. You can also peel the prescription label off the original bottle, and place it on the digital one.
What About Vitamins and Supplements?
If you take any vitamins and supplements, you should also make a list of these, just like you did with your medications. Remember to keep a copy in your wallet and give one to your emergency contact, family members and a trusted friend.
Why does your doctor and pharmacist need to know about your vitamins and supplements? Mainly because some supplements (and some vitamins) can affect the way a medication works, or exacerbate the medication’s effects. If your pharmacist knows what supplements you are taking, he or she can see if any of your supplements will interact with your medications.
For example, blood pressure medications are made to lower blood pressure and heart rate. If you take potassium supplements with your blood pressure medication, you could inadvertently cause your blood pressure or heart rate to drop too low, which can be fatal. It’s wise to tell your doctor everything you’re taking.
When it comes to storage of vitamins and supplements, you have a bit more freedom. Most vitamins look very different from each other, so it’s not as easy to get them confused. Keeping vitamins and supplements in a seven day pill case or other container is a good way to make sure you take your vitamins every day. Personally, I set out all my vitamins for the day in an empty prescription bottle with the label removed.
Storing Your Medications
Check with your doctor or pharmacist about storing your medications. Sometimes a medication needs to be stored in the fridge (like a liquid antibiotic, or an eyedrop), but most medications can be kept at room temperature.
Whatever you do, don’t store your medications in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Prescriptions should be stored in a cool, dry area, and the bathroom is typically filled with humid, warm air, and lots of water.
It’s best to find a shelf in an area of your home that is away from water that stays nice and cool, usually 70° - 77° F. Never store your medications in an area that will reach temperatures over 77º F, and absolutely avoid leaving medications in your car.
Resources to Help You Get Organized
- Pill Organizer and Pillbox Products - Best Prices
Pill organizer products.
- e-pill Medication Reminders: Pill Dispenser, Vibrating Watch, Pill Box Timer & Alarms
e-pill Medication Reminders. Pill dispenser, Alarm watch, Pill box or Alarm timer. E-pills are easy to set-up and use. Improve medication adherence and patient compliance. Never forget to take your medications again with an e-pill reminder.
- IHeart Organizing: You Asked: Dedication to Medication
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Melissa Flagg COA OSC
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 24, 2015:
Great hub on how to organize your prescription meds. Very helpful and useful!
Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on June 19, 2013:
Really? You would have thought that the consequences of not taking their meds would have been motivation enough to get it sorted.
Melissa Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on June 18, 2013:
Phoenix, I know what you mean! Unfortunately, doctors and nurses don't really go into how to keep your meds organized, which is really a shame because as medical personnel, we have a unique insight into not only how patients comply with their medications, but also how to get them to be compliant. That's why I wrote this hub, I had so many patients that would come in completely unorganized and never know whether or not they took their life saving meds!
Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on June 16, 2013:
When I was recovering from the 1st surgery, I was on loads of different pain meds. I wish I could have had this helpful advice then, DOM. It would have made it easier for me to know when to take what. I knew some of the stuff could be addictive so I had to be careful to take them at the prescribed time. It would have been a lot easier than waiting for the pain to wake me up and then try to remember when I took the last dosage.
Melissa Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on June 02, 2013:
@Paula even though I only take 5, I have to be organized about it because they are medications I can't get mixed up and although it won't kill me if I forget to take them, it definitely won't help my mood! lol So like you I have to keep track of when I take my meds. I use my smartphone as an alarm, and name the alarm after the medication. But it's scary how many people don't bother to keep their meds organized in anyway. I had patients who were always forgetting to take their diabetic medications! Can you believe that? That can be deadly! Okay, end rant lol :D
Melissa Flagg COA OSC (author) from Rural Central Florida on June 02, 2013:
@Faith Reaper I watched too many patients come in an tell me they had no idea what they were on, or they'd bring on a bag full of meds with duplicate bottles in it. It was very unsettling because I know how dangerous it is. That was my motivation for this hub. Congrats on only taking one med! I'm trying to stay at 5, I used to take 8. I'm hoping to get rid of a few more soon. I just hate swallowing pills! lol
Suzie from Carson City on May 30, 2013:
DOM.....Thank you for this very specific, helpful hub, full of excellent tips and reminders. It is so important for those who take any number of various meds, to be diligent and organized with dosages, times and the need to communicate with your Dr. at all times.
I'm happy to say that I take very few prescription meds, yet I have followed an habitual plan for taking them daily and properly. I am much too active and busy, to rely on memory or hit or miss. Your readers should be grateful to you for this hub and follow your sound advice....UP+++
Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 29, 2013:
Really useful and very important hub here. I know many who have to take a lot of meds, etc., and really do need to get their meds organized for their own health and safety.
I am thankful, now, the only thing I have to take is blood pressure medicine.
Voted up +++ and sharing
Blessings, Faith Reaper