August 1, 2015

Medicines and Their Instructions: What Do They Mean and Are They Important?

Brea Pearce, Pharmacist, Terry White Chemists, Myer Centre, Brisbane

Have you ever wondered why there are so many instructions on your medicine label or given to you by the pharmacist? Does it really matter whether your medicine is taken with food? Why is it important to swallow the tablet whole? Have you questioned why you have to shake the puffer before using it? Using medicines correctly is vital. These instructions are put on the label to help make sure the right amount of that medicine reaches the location it is intended to, and works in the way it is meant to.

Medicines & their Instructions 300pxIt can sometimes be very confusing as to how and when a medicine should be taken, and the instructions given to you both verbally and in writing can be overwhelming. The way in which a medicine is meant to be taken is different for all medicines due to the way that they interact with the body and where they are going to be working within the body. The instructions you receive for each medi
cine are specific for that medicine only. For example, not all antibiotics need to be taken with food, and you don’t need to rinse your mouth out after the use of all inhalers.

It can be very important though to follow these instructions to limit side effects and increase the medicine’s effect within the body.

The way some medicines work is by being taken orally or by inhalation and then travelling via the gut or airways to the intended site of action. What you eat and when you eat can have a large impact on the effectiveness of medicines. There are medicines which, when taken with or without food, will have a decreased or increased effect on the body. The effectiveness of some medicines can be reduced by up to 60% by being taken with food if they are not meant to be. For example, alendronate which is used to treat osteoporosis should be taken on an empty stomach for the correct absorption.

It is important that the instructions written on the label are followed correctly to allow for a sufficient amount of the medicine to reach its intended site and treat the condition for which it is prescribed.

The instructions on your medicine may say to swallow the tablet whole. Swallowing a tablet whole ensures it reaches the right location within your body before it starts to be absorbed. If crushed, or cut, it may be broken down in the stomach when it actually needs to get to the small intestine, or it may mean that you get a large dose of that medicine at once rather than it being released slowly over a long period of time.

There are other ways in which a medicine can be taken, such as inhalers, of which there are many different types used for treating various respiratory conditions. People can have multiple inhalers and it is extremely important that they are aware of the difference between them and when and why they are being used. The two main groups are known as preventers and relievers. The instructions you receive for these medicines can be quite different and to ensure that your respiratory condition is being treated effectively, these instructions need to be followed precisely. Technique is also extremely important, as is the use of spacers in helping to decrease the chance of side effects due to the medicine hitting the back of your throat and not effectively getting to where it needs to work. Lung Foundation Australia has a number of inhaler technique fact sheets which can be accessed at

A spacer is a clear plastic container shaped like a football or a tube with a mouthpiece or mask at one end and a hole for an inhaler at the other. Spacers help to get the medicine into your lungs. The medicine is ‘fired’ from the puffer into the spacer device and is then inhaled through the mouthpiece or a face mask. Spacers are suitable for everyone, and they can be as effective as nebulisers. They can also increase the amount of medicine which reaches your lungs by up to 70%.

So next time you’re at your pharmacy, speak with your pharmacist. Feel free to ask them about your medicine and to check your inhaler technique. Even ask if they offer a service where they can sit down and go through your medicines with you. Actively seek the information on your prescribed medicines and ensure you are using your medicines correctly to allow for better control and management of your health.

It is important that the instructions written on the label are followed correctly to allow for a sufficient amount of the medicine to reach its intended site and treat the condition for which it is prescribed.