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Managing your medicines

As well as helping you getting the most benefit from your medicines, good medicine management may reduce your chances of mishaps that can cause side effects or interactions. 

6 min read

Risks of taking multiple medicines

About 2 in 5 Australians aged 50 and older, and 2 in 3 Australians aged 75 and older, take five or more medicines every day.

Compared to those using fewer medicines, older Australians who take five or more medicines a day are twice as likely to report a side effect or other medicine problem. They are also seven times more likely to be taking medicines that could interact.

The more medicines you take, the more likely you are to experience medicine problems or mistakes. 

This is true whether the medicines are prescription, non-prescription (over-the-counter) or complementary medicines. Medicine problems can land you in hospital.

If you take many medicines, your risk of experiencing side effects and interactions is also greatly increased.

  • Some combinations of medicines especially problematic. If you are taking several different medicines that can affect your brain and nervous system, you are much more likely to experience drowsiness, confusion or memory problems. This can lead to falls or serious accidents.
  • Older people are more prone to dizziness, light-headedness and fainting, especially if taking medicine that also causes these effects (these include blood pressure-lowering medicines, pain relief medicines that contain opioids, and medicines for psychotic conditions).
  • Taking multiple medicines also increases the chance of a medicine affecting existing medical conditions – for example, anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) taken to relieve pain or inflammation can worsen high blood pressure and kidney function.

Side effects, and the higher financial costs sometimes associated with multiple medicines, may mean you are less able to take your medicines regularly or in the right way.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about getting your medicines reviewed regularly, especially if you or someone you care for takes five or more medicines a day. Sometimes taking many different medicines can't be avoided, and indeed can be necessary for your health, but minimising the number of medicines you take, and reducing medicines that may cause problems for you, will help.

You can also help prevent medicine problems by:

  • taking the lowest possible dose for each medicine you need
  • simplifying what medicines you take and when
  • using health care services or resources to help you manage your health and medicines.

Speak with your doctor or other health professional if you have concerns about the number of medicines you are taking.

Managing multiple medicines

There are a number of ways you can take special care to reduce the risk of problems.

  • Know the names of your medicines, and what they look like.
  • Record details of your medicines, including why you are using them, on a medicines list.
  • Read the consumer medicine information (CMI) for your medicines (available on our Medicine Finder page or from your pharmacist or doctor) and keep this information handy for future reference.
  • Ask your pharmacist for advice on medication organisers, such as ones you fill yourself each day or week, or blister packs (eg, Webster™ paks) filled by the pharmacist for a small fee. This will help you separate your medicines into groups for the days and times you need to take them.
  • Take out-of-date or unused medicines to your pharmacy for safe disposal.
  • Store medicines away from heat and damp because these conditions can damage most medicines. Do not store medicines in the bathroom or near a sink, or leave them in a car. Always keep medicines out of reach of children.

See your doctor regularly, or at least every 6 to 12 months, to have your medicines reviewed. Ask whether you should stop taking your medicines or change the dosage, and consider asking your doctor or pharmacist whether a Home Medicines Review would be useful to help you avoid problems with your medicines.

Practical aids to manage your medicines

Many devices are available to help you take your medicines. Some are designed for specific tasks, such as cutting or crushing tablets. Others are designed to help overcome difficulties such as arthritic or weak hands. 

Medication organisers

Ask your pharmacist for advice on medication organisers, with separate compartments for the days of the week and /or times of the day. There are some you fill yourself each day or week,

Pharmacies also offer blister packs (eg, Webster™ paks) filled by the pharmacist for a small fee. This will help you separate your medicines into the times and days you need to take them.

These aids can make it easier to remember to take your medicines, and also help you remember if you have already taken them. 

Using combination medicines

Combination medicines contain more than one active ingredient. The active ingredients are the chemicals that makes the medicine work.

Some combination medicines are made because the active ingredients work better together. In others, one active ingredient reduces the side effects of the main active ingredient. 

Sometimes the combination is created to make it easier to take the medicines, for example by reducing the number of tablets you need to take, or inhalers you need to use.

While combination medicines have some advantages, they also have some risks.

Advantages

  • Combination medicines can be more convenient than taking the medicines separately.
  • Combination medicines are usually less expensive than buying the medicines individually.

Risks

  • If you experience a side effect or interaction while taking a combination medicine, it can be difficult to work out which active ingredient caused it.
  • If you need to adjust the dose of one active ingredient, it can be more complicated than if you were taking the medicines separately – you will need a new prescription.
  • There is a risk of accidentally double-dosing, which can cause side effects. This can happen if you take the combination medicine as well as one of the single medicines it was meant to replace. For example, if you take paracetamol as well as a cold and flu medicine that also contaisn paracetamol, you risk damaging your liver.

It’s important to know what the active ingredients are in any combinations you take. Most medicines have two names: the active ingredient and the brand name. The brand name is in larger print than the active ingredients on the packet, so you may not realise that some medicines are combinations unless you look carefully at the active ingredient names. 

Using combination medicines safely

  • It is best to start with individual medicines to see how well each works for you. Once you are used to the individual medicines and know which dose works for you, you can be more confident about switching to a combination medicine.
  • Create a medicines list that shows the active ingredients as well as the brand names. This way you can avoid doubling up on active ingredients.
  • If you start taking a combination medicine, make sure you know which medicines it replaces, and take them to your pharmacy for disposal.

Getting a Home Medicines Review (HMR)

Do you know your medicines? If medicines aren’t used properly, or if the wrong ones are used together, the results can be serious. Each year more than 140,000 Australians have to go to hospital with problems caused by their medicine. In up to 69% of these cases, the problem could have been avoided. Older people are particularly at risk.

The Home Medicines Review (HMR) Program was developed in response to this problem. It is funded by the Australian government and managed by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

A Home Medicines Review involves your GP and an accredited pharmacist of your choice. Your GP writes a referral to the pharmacist. A pharmacist conducts an interview, preferably in your home, and then writes a report for to the GP. The GP will discuss any recommendations with you and may make appropriate changes to your medicines. 

The solutions may involve:

  • showing you how to take your medicines correctly
  • explaining why and when to take them
  • explaining where they should be stored
  • explaining what to expect when taking them
  • outlining what problems you should report to the GP
  • checking that prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines and vitamins are appropriate to take together
  • clarifying any confusion with generic medicines
  • giving you some help so you can remember to take your medicines
  • changing your medicines.

Who should have a Home Medicines Review?

Reviews are particularly useful for people who:
  • take more than five medicines a day
  • have recently spent time in hospital
  • are concerned about their medicines
  • are confused about their medicines
  • do not always remember to take their medicines.

How much does it cost?

The pharmacist’s review and report is paid for by the Australian government, so it will not cost you anything. Your GP may bulk-bill or charge you for the GP consultations.

If you (or someone you care for) might benefit from having a Home Medicines Review, talk to your GP or pharmacist about organising one. They are available in all states and territories.

Keeping a Medicines List

The more medicines you take, the more difficult it can be to remember important information about them. A medicines list can be a useful way to keep all the information about your medicines together.

You can use a medicines list to record:

  • all the medicines you use, including prescription, non-prescription, over-the-counter, minerals, herbal and natural medicines
  • what each medicine is for
  • how much of each medicine to use
  • when and how to use each medicine.

Keeping a medicines list will:

  • help you to know more about your medicines – to get better results from the medicines you use, get the most out of medical consultations, reduce side effects and interactions, and enjoy better health
  • remind you how and when to take your medicines
  • ensure everyone involved in your health care knows which medicines you use
  • help your doctor and pharmacist check and review your medicines
  • provide vital information about your medicines in an emergency.

A medicines list can be a useful way to keep all the information about your medicines together.

Find out more about keeping a medicines list

Disposing of unused medicines

While it may seem wasteful to dispose of unused medicines, saving them ‘just in case’ can be dangerous.

Most medicines deteriorate with time, which can lead to changes in their chemical composition. The medicines become less effective or, in some cases, potentially harmful if they are used after their expiry date.

Dispose of medicines safely

The Return Unwanted Medicines project is a free Australia-wide service. Local pharmacies collect out-of-date, unwanted and leftover medicines, and then arrange for them to be disposed of safely in high-temperature incinerators.

In the past, people often flushed unwanted medicines down the sink or toilet, or put them in the rubbish to be taken to the tip. Disposing of medicines in these ways can damage the environment, particularly streams and soils. 

Using the Return Unwanted Medicines scheme ensures that your unwanted medicines are disposed of safely without harming the environment, people or pets. It also helps to make your home safer.

Find out more about the Return Unwanted Medicines project. 

Check your medicines regularly 

You can take your unwanted and expired medicines back to a pharmacy at any time. So it’s a good idea, every so often, to gather all the medicines in your home, and:

  • remove any that have passed their expiry date
  • go through the remaining medicines and check whether you really need them, and remove any that you no longer need
  • take all the expired and no-longer needed medicines to a pharmacy.

If you would like to know more about what to do with unused medicines, talk to your pharmacist.

6 min read