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10 medication questions you always wanted to ask (but haven’t)

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Is expired medication safe? What do I do if I miss a dose? When it comes to your health, all your questions are valid. Here are the answers you need.
Written by Kim Robinson
Updated on September 24, 2021

Ask a Stupid Question Day is Sept. 28, but as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s especially true when it comes to taking medication.

No doubt you’ve occasionally been confused by the directions on a label. But maybe you decided it wasn’t worth bugging your doctor or pharmacist to find the answer.

Here’s the thing: Taking medication the right way is important. It won’t just help you manage your health conditions. It’ll also benefit your long-term vitality and well-being, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means it’s well worth speaking up, even if your question seems silly.

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Here are 10 medication questions you’ve always wanted answered but never asked.

#1: Is it okay to take expired medication?

Answer: Sorry to say, but you shouldn’t. Once a medication is past its expiration date, there’s no guarantee that it’s either safe or effective, according to the FDA. That’s true even when your back seizes up, and after a frantic hunt through the medicine cabinet, you finally find a prescription bottle of muscle relaxants that expired 2 years ago.

“As medication ages, the potency decreases as the chemical ingredients break down,” says Jeff Fortner, PharmD. He’s a compounding pharmacist and a professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. It can also break down into other products that have different effects on the body, he adds.

“Using expired medication means it might not have the full intended effect, which could be dangerous depending on the medication.”

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#2: Is there a difference between generic and brand-name medication?

Answer: The generic version of a brand-name medication is almost exactly the same as the brand-name one. No, really. The FDA requires the generic version of a medication to have the same form, safety, strength, quality and performance characteristics as the brand-name version.

“They also both have to have the same active ingredients,” says Kristi Kelley, PharmD. She’s a clinical professor at the Auburn University Harrison School of Pharmacy in Birmingham, Alabama. Other characteristics that don’t impact how they work can be different, says the FDA.

So they may look different. Or have different flavorings or inactive ingredients. But at the end of the day, they still have the same benefits and risks as the brand-name medication.

#3: Okay, but then why are generic medications so much cheaper?

Answer: A generic version of a medication can sometimes be as much as 85% cheaper than the brand-name medication. That’s not because it contains cheaper ingredients. Instead, per the FDA, it’s because a generic version of the drug doesn’t have to repeat the animal and human studies to prove that the medication is safe and effective.

That effectively makes generic medication cheaper to produce. And because there are usually several generic versions of the same medication, the price is even lower through competition. (Optum Perks’ coupons can help you save even more. Download our app to get started.)

#4: What’s the point of the inactive ingredients on Drug Facts labels?

Answer: Many of the inactive ingredients in a medication actually serve an important purpose. They help deliver the medication where it needs to go in your body and make it easier for companies to mass-produce, Dr. Fortner says. They also help you avoid ingredients you may be allergic to.

According to Dr. Fortner, common inactive ingredients and their benefits include:

  • Fillers to add bulk to a pill, so it’s big enough to easily hold in your hand
  • Binders to hold tablet powders together
  • Disintegrants to help tablets dissolve after they’ve been swallowed
  • Coatings to cover a bad taste or allow a pill to dissolve at the right point in the digestive tract
  • Dyes to help tell the difference between similar products
  • Sweeteners or flavors to make medication taste better
  • Preservatives to prevent microbial growth or contamination

#5: Why are the names of medications so complicated?

Answer: The names of some medications sound like a mashed-up version of characters in a sci-fi novel. But there actually is a method behind the madness of how medications get their names.

First, every medication gets 2 names: a generic name and a brand name that can be used for marketing. Brand names must be unique enough to stand apart from other existing medications, Dr. Fortner says. Generic medications follow a standardized worldwide formula. That includes avoiding letters like Y, K, J, H and W that don’t appear in all languages that use the Roman alphabet.

“There is also a process to convey what type of medication a generic drug is by having the end of the name be the same as other drugs of a given type,” Dr. Fortner says. For example, antibiotics such as amoxicillin and penicillin both share the “cillin” suffix.

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#6: What’s the difference between an ointment and a cream?

Answer: Ointments and creams are 2 types of topical medications, which are treatments that you use on the body instead of in it, explains Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD. She’s a clinical pharmacist and author of Digestive Reset.

Creams are, well, creamier. They have a higher water concentration, while ointments can sometimes be greasier and stickier because they have a higher concentration of oil. But the main medical difference is that your skin can absorb a cream more quickly, while an ointment will sit on the skin longer before it’s absorbed.

#7: Why do I have a prescription for a drug I can get over the counter (OTC)?

Answer: You might have been surprised when your doctor wrote you a prescription for something such as ibuprofen that you can easily buy yourself. But there are some good reasons for this, says Dr. Fortner:

  • The prescription version may be a higher strength that’s not available over the counter.
  • Your insurance company may foot the bill for the prescription version, but not the OTC.
  • Your doctor can give you special directions that differ from the general directions on an OTC label.
  • Your pharmacist can check for drug interactions with your other medications.

#8: I’m supposed to take my medication on an empty stomach. What does that mean?

Answer: Food and drinks (juice, milk, etc.) can sometimes stop certain medications from being absorbed properly. So always read the label to see how you should take your medication. If you’re supposed to take medication on an empty stomach, that means taking it at least 2 hours before or 2 hours after you eat, according to the National Institute on Aging.

#9: I missed a dose of my medication. Can I just double up on the next one?

Answer: If you miss a dose within about a 60-minute window, it’s probably fine to take the medication right then and your next dose at the regular time, says Dr. Lukyanovsky. And in some rare cases, your doctor might tell you it’s okay to take 2 doses of an antibiotic at once, she says.

But generally, it’s not a good idea to take a double dose of your medication. You should never do it without your doctor’s permission. “Some medications are very dangerous to double up on,” Dr. Lukyanovsky says.

She lists blood thinners, blood pressure medications, certain pain medications and heart medications as examples. To be prepared, talk to your doctor about what you should do if you miss a dose.

#10: If I feel better, can I stop taking prescription medication?

Answer: You shouldn’t stop taking prescription medication without talking to your doctor first — even if you feel fine. For example, if you stop taking an antibiotic too soon, your infection could return and it could become resistant to the antibiotic, says the Mayo Clinic. If you’re experiencing bad side effects from a medication, tell your doctor. He or she might be able to find a medication that works better for you.

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Additional sources
Generic drug facts:
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
What to know about expired medications: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Answers to common medication questions: National Institute on Aging
Taking antibiotics responsibly: Mayo Clinic