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Drug FAQs

Your questions on drug safety answered.

What is a prescription?

A prescription is a medicine ordered by a doctor or medical professional to benefit a patient, based on their symptoms. The length of time for which the prescription is valid varies based on the individual’s needs, and what the physician determines is necessary and most beneficial. A prescription is a controlled substance, and must be ordered for a legitimate illness or condition by a registered physician.

How do doctors know what prescription(s) you need?

Doctors are required to go to medical school for years to make sure that they are educated on dozens of treatment options and medications. In addition, many doctors take ongoing education and training, read academic literature, and attend conferences and other professional gatherings to make sure they know about new drugs and new uses of existing drugs. All of this training and information helps them determine the best medication to treat a particular illness or condition.

A doctor may prescribe you a medication if they think your condition is treatable, and if they believe that it is safe for you to take the particular drug they are prescribing. Since there are thousands of medications on the market, the prescription a doctor writes will depend on the your symptoms, preferences, any allergies you may have, and sometimes even the cost of the prescription.

What questions should I ask my doctor about prescriptions?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends asking the following questions about your prescription:

  • What is the name of the medicine?
  • What is the medicine supposed to do?
  • How and when do I need to take the prescription?
  • How much time should pass between each dose?
  • For how long do I need to take the prescription?
  • Do I need to take the prescription with food, water, or at the same time as another medication?
  • What foods, drinks, other medicines, dietary supplements, or activities should I avoid while taking this prescription?
  • Can this prescription be taken with over-the-counter medicines?
  • Is there a less expensive alternative?
  • What should I do if I miss or forget a dose?
  • Are there any other special instructions to follow?
  • What are the possible side effects, and what should I do if they occur?
  • When should I expect the medicine to start working?
  • How will I know if the medication is working?

These questions can also be asked of your pharmacists when you go to pick up the prescription.

How should I store my prescriptions?

Always read the directions on your prescription and follow storage directions indicated. If you have any questions about how to store your prescription, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

In most cases, prescriptions should be stored in a clean, dry area, such as a cabinet. It’s important to not store out in the open, like countertops or windowsills, where they can be accessed by others, especially children. Because medications are sensitive to light, temperature, and moisture, it’s best to keep them in a place where they can be stored at room temperature.

Some prescriptions may need to be kept cool, such as in a refrigerator. This includes some types of medicines that are held in suspension, insulin, and certain other liquid or gel medications.

I found an old prescription — how can I dispose of it responsibly?

Since medications have expiration dates, it’s important to dispose of old prescriptions appropriately when they expire. The best method, if possible, is to return unused prescriptions through what’s called a take-back program. DEA-authorized collectors or local law enforcement may be able to provide materials to collect unused medications.

If take-back programs aren’t available in your area, most medicines can be mixed with a grainy substance, such as kitty litter, used coffee grounds, or dirt, and then placed in the trash. When disposing of old prescription bottles, be sure to remove or scratch out any personal information on the bottle.

A very small number of prescriptions are not recommended to be thrown away by the FDA. These medications, such as fentanyl patches, should be flushed down the toilet. This is to make sure that there is no chance for a pet or person to accidentally take the medication, because with these select few prescriptions, even one dose can cause death.

What is the difference between generic drugs and brand name drugs?

There is not much difference between generic drugs and brand name drugs besides the price. Brand name drugs hit the market first, because it’s owned by a pharmaceutical company who has patent rights to the medication. Once the FDA determines that the drug is safe, the company can sell the medication exclusively as long as they have rights to it.

After a drug patent expires, a generic drug manufacturer is able to make a cheaper version of the drug, which means more people are able to buy it at an affordable price. The generic drug must contain the same active ingredient, the same dose and concentration, and be able to be taken the same way (as a pill, for example).

The difference in the prescriptions may be that they look different in shape, color, or packaging. Generic versions may also have different inactive ingredients or preservatives than a brand name drug. The vast majority of doctors agree, however, that a generic medication is just as good as a brand name one.

Can I take someone else’s prescription if it’s the same drug?

It is never a good idea to take someone else’s prescription. Even if you believe you are taking the same drug in the same dosage, there may be a difference that you are not aware of. Also, some drugs that have similar names may have very different effects on the body. Finally, if you take someone else’s prescription, that means they may not have enough medicine for their own needs, which can cause harm or force them to pay more to purchase a refill.

For all of these reasons, it is extremely important to only take medications prescribed to you by a doctor who has considered your specific medical needs.

What is “off-label” drug use?

Off-label drug use is the use of a prescription for something other than its intended use. When a prescription goes on the market, the FDA must approve that the drug is safe, and what condition(s) it is intended to treat. This is called the indications for use.

When a drug is used off-label, it is being used in a way not indicated on the label. This could be using it as a treatment for a different medical condition, taking a different dose, or taking the medication in a different way (injecting it versus swallowing it, for example.) Some off-label drug uses are studied as part of clinical trials, and if the off-label use is determined to effectively treat a new condition, it may be approved by the FDA as a new indication to be added to the label.

Off-label drug use is not prohibited in the U.S.. The only exception is with pain medications, which can only be prescribed in the United States for intended use.