Medically Approved

Habit hack: How to never forget a dose of medication

Man and woman examining pillbox

Pop those pillbox tabs, get your refills on repeat and use these other tips to keep your medication plan on track.

Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas

Forgetting to take a dose of medication happens to the best of us. Heck, it can even happen with drugs you’ve been on for years. Maybe you’re juggling them on revolving schedules, taking some in the morning or evening and others on an empty stomach or after a meal.

It’s no wonder, then, that about half of us take our medication incorrectly, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A big part of that is forgetting a dose. And it’s worth figuring out how to stay on schedule, because you’re more likely to have better results when you’re on time with your medications.

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Let’s examine some of the most common reasons people get off track — and what you can do to get (and stay) back on.

Why do I forget to take my medication?

This can happen for many reasons. Some people struggle to get into the habit in the first place. Others forget because of a break in their regular routine.

“Almost everyone forgets to take their medication at some point. Things that disrupt your schedule, like a big holiday or a vacation, can make you forget,” says Joshua Stein, MD. He’s a psychiatrist and clinical director at the Brooklyn Park Partial Hospital Program in Minnesota. (Here are 10 ways to take the stress out of traveling with medications.)

Disruptions could even be as simple as the difference between a busy weekday and a well-deserved lazy Sunday morning.

Dose timing also plays a role in how easy or hard it is to stay on track. “It’s much harder to remember pills in the middle of the day or at a random time like an hour after eating,” says Ari Tuckman, PsyD. “That moment of time slips past unnoticed when we’re engaged in other events.”

Still, there’s another reason that goes beyond forgetfulness, says Tuckman. “Sometimes it’s because they’re ambivalent about taking it,” he says. Maybe you resent having to take medication at all, or you’re not sure that you really need it. The result? You don’t make a big effort to stay on schedule.

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How can I stick to my medication treatment plan?

There’s no shortage of methods to make it easier to remember to take your medication. The trick is to find the one that works best for you.

Your first step is to get a birds-eye view of the situation. Use this chart to make a list of all your medications, what they look like and when and how you have to take them.

My medication record

Once you have your list, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. You may even want to schedule a formal comprehensive medication review, which can help you find ways to streamline your treatment. Maybe that means fewer doses or taking more of your medications at the same time of day. “The fewer times you have to take meds throughout the day, the better,” Dr. Stein says.

Then try these tips for remembering your daily doses:

  • Connect taking your pills to something else you do every day, such as brushing your teeth, Tuckman says. Say you need to take medication in the morning or at night. You could keep those pills in a container next to your toothbrush. “That way you can borrow some of the predictability of that first habit,” he says.
     
  • Use a dry-erase board to track your doses each day.
     
  • Keep your medication in a pill container with clear inserts. Once you’ve taken the medication inside, keep the lid flipped up. “That way a quick look will tell you whether you took your pills, and you don’t need to agonize over trying to remember,” Tuckman says. Keep your pill container in a place where you’ll regularly see it, such as on your kitchen or bathroom counter.
     
  • Refill your pillbox on the same day at the same time each week. Tie it to a specific event. Maybe after dinner on Sundays or before your favorite TV show.
     
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to refill your prescriptions — you don’t want to be caught without your medication. (Optum Store helps make managing refill schedules easy.) People who use a pillbox may be more likely to refill their prescription before they run out of medication than those who don’t.
     
  • Use your phone's alarm clock to set up recurring alerts that go off when it's time to take your medication, Tuckman says. “Memory is too prone to misses,” he says. You can snooze the medication alarm, but don’t turn it off until you’ve taken your medication.
     
  • Try to shift your attitude. “You may need to push yourself to take your pill, even at those times that you don’t feel like it or it’s inconvenient,” says Tuckman. “Remind yourself about the benefits of the medication and how good it will feel to not have to anxiously remember if you took it.”

If you’re questioning whether you even need your medication, ask your doctor to explain why they’re recommending it and how it will help. Be sure to have that conversation before you completely stop taking your medication, which can cause serious flare-ups or other complications.

What should I do if I forget a dose?

Don’t panic. You remembered and are taking action — that’s what counts.

Your next step depends on the medication, Tuckman says. “For some drugs, you should take the missed dose as soon as you realize you forgot it. For others, it’s better to just wait until your next scheduled dose.”

Some medications, such as those for high blood pressure, ADHD, diabetes and pain, can be very dangerous to double up on or take doses too close together. One missed birth control pill, however, can be taken as soon as you remember, even if that means taking 2 at the same time, according to the CDC.

For most missed doses, though, call your medical provider before you do anything. Even better: Be proactive and ask your doctor or pharmacist what to do if you miss a dose. Add that information to your medication list at home so that you always know what to do.

“That’s better than making a panicked call to a prescriber’s office or doing frenzied Googling on the weekend,” Tuckman says.

No matter the reason you missed a dose, know that you’re taking the steps you need to stay your healthiest. Have a plan, stay informed and create structures that make your life easier.

Cost can be a big barrier to taking prescription medications, too. Download our free mobile app today to save up to 80% on your next trip to the pharmacy.

 

Additional sources
Statistics on how many people miss medication doses:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How to handle missed birth control doses: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention