The right dose of medicine at the right time
It may seem harmless to skip a dose of your daily medicine since you took it the day before and will be taking it tomorrow or to cut the pill in half so your medicine will last longer. But this is not how medicine works! We need to take medicine exactly the way our doctor has prescribed. If not, we may not get any better and may even get worse.
You may wonder why you need to take more of a certain medicine than a friend of yours. It depends on the dose that your doctor prescribed. Doctors prescribe a specific dose depending on your weight, age, health history, other medications and other factors.¹ You do not want to take the same dose if you’re a 100-pound female versus a 240-pound male since drugs are metabolized differently per body type and gender.² Doses are also specific for children and for older adults.
What’s in a dose?
Let’s define dose. A dose is the specific amount of medicine taken at 1 time. This contrasts with dosage, which is the dose plus its frequency over the duration of the treatment. For example, your dosage may be 2 doses of a 200-mg tablet a day for 30 days—1 dose in the morning and 1 dose at night. This applies to both prescription and over-the-counter medicine.
Some drugs are time released so you’re required to take them at specific times. For example, if you are required to take a time-released medicine once a day, you’ll want to take it at the same time every day. If you don’t, you may end up having too much of the drug in your system, or too little, making it less effective. A time-released drug is distributed in your body slowly and evenly over time so that you don’t have huge spikes of the medicine in your blood.³
Medicines come in different shapes and forms. These “dosage forms” can be pills, liquids, creams, aerosols or patches.⁴ They can take on different strengths of a drug, relating to the type of dose—high, medium or low. A low-dose aspirin can come as an 81-mg tablet, while a regular-strength ibuprofen may be 200 or 400 mg and an extra-strength acetaminophen may be 500 mg.
But high and low doses depend on the medicine. What might be high for one drug may be low for another. Be sure to read the prescription label carefully and follow the directions. You can easily overdose if you take more than the recommended amount.
If you take liquid medicine, be sure to measure carefully. A spoon that you eat with is not the same as a tablespoon that’s required for medicine or a mL of liquid. If you use a kitchen spoon instead of a proper tablespoon, you may end up taking more medicine than needed and overdosing or not taking enough. Parents often miscalculate how much medicine to give to their children. When taking or giving liquid medicine, doctors recommend using a medication syringe.⁵ You measure the exact amount in the syringe and put all of it in your mouth. Ask your pharmacist for medication syringes when taking liquid medicine.
Monitoring the dose
Sometimes a dose may change over time. Doctors often start with a low dose and monitor how you feel. If you don’t get any better and you’re not having side effects, you may be put on a higher dose. You may be required to get blood tests from time to time to monitor the effects of a medicine. Some drugs are very toxic to the body, so doctors review how much of the medicine is needed to help you get better without making you sick. Side effects might include an allergic reaction, nausea, headache, difficulty sleeping and constipation, among others.⁶ If side effects are the reason you stop taking your medicine, talk to your doctor first to see if there are alternatives.
Completing the full treatment
You may be tempted to stop taking your medicine once you feel better. But don’t give in to this! Just because you feel better does not mean you’re cured. Take antibiotics as an example. If you stop taking antibiotics before your treatment ends, you may still have lingering bacteria in your system that can multiply. These bacteria may have some resistance to the antibiotic you’re taking and if you stop treatment early, they can multiply and grow and form a new kind of bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics, such as the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria.⁷ These are known as superbugs and they are a growing problem.⁸ Always talk to your doctor before stopping any treatment.
Staying on track
If forgetting to take your medicine is a reason you skip doses, then use these strategies to help you remember:
• Put medicine where you’re likely to see it—on your nightstand or kitchen table (be mindful if you have children or pets so that it is out of their reach)
• Post reminder notes on your refrigerator or in an area you frequent most
• Set reminders on your phone or alarm clock that go off when it’s time to take your medicine
• Use health apps that let you track your progress and send reminders to yourself
- “Medication Administration: Why It’s Important to Take Drugs the Right Way,” Healthline, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/administration-of-medication#dosage-and-timing.
- Roni Caryn Rabin, “The Drug-Dose Gender Gap,” The New York Times, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://archive.nytimes.com/well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/the-drug-dose-gender-gap/.
- “Medication Administration: Why It’s Important to Take Dugs the Right Way.”
- “Drug Dosage,” Drugs.com, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.drugs.com/dosage/.
- Claire McCarthy, “2 Simple Ways to Ensure You Give Your Kids the Right Dose of Medicine (Lots of Parents Don’t),” Harvard Health Publishing, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/2-simple-ways-to-ensure-you-give-your-kids-the-right-dose-of-medicine-lots-of-parents-dont-2016091310350.
- Christian Nordqvist, “All about Side Effects,” Medical News Today, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/196135.
- “Are You Taking Medicine as Prescribed?,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/special-features/why-you-need-take-your-medications-prescribed-or-instructed.
- “What Are Superbugs and How Can I Protect Myself from Infection?,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed April 24, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infectious-diseases/expert-answers/superbugs/faq-20129283.