If you take one prescription medication, you’ll know that there’s a dose and a frequency with which you’re supposed to take it. Normally, it’s easy to keep track of one prescription, no problem.
Now, multiply that by five, 10, or more. Taking multiple drugs at a time can often be unnerving. You might worry about how to take them properly or you might experience unwanted side effects from taking them.1
While it can be intimidating to talk to your healthcare provider about why you’ve been prescribed certain medications and how they may affect you, it’s important to have an open conversation. You’ll learn what to expect — from when you’ll start to feel better to what side effects to watch for. Plus, asking the right questions will help you stay informed about your treatment — and increase the likelihood that it will go well.2 In some cases, clinicians can use precision medicine to predict how likely a medication is to achieve a response in a particular person. Precision medicine can also help determine who may be at risk for side effects, as well as tailoring the dose of a medication based on how quickly or slowly your body may break a drug down.3 (Learn more about precision medicine and how it works.)
In the meantime, here are 11 essential questions to ask your doctor when starting or switching to a new medication.
Questions to ask your doctor when starting or switching to a new medication
1. Which condition is this medication intended to treat?
In other words, “Why are you prescribing this drug to me?” It doesn’t have to be posed as a confrontational question to your doctor. Think of it as a peek inside your treatment plan.2
“A lot of medications are used to treat many different conditions, sometimes in an off-label capacity,” says Darrell Hulisz, R.Ph., Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacist and an associate professor of family and community health at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Off-label prescribing is when your doctor might write you a prescription for a drug that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved to treat a condition different from your condition. It’s actually quite common: 1 in 5 prescriptions are for off-label use.4
If your doctor prescribes you an off-label drug, make sure you know what the medication is being used for and why one drug is being used in the place of another one. It could be for your own safety. It’ll also help avoid confusion as to what condition the off-label drug is treating when you share this info with other health care providers.5
2. What are the advantages of taking this medication over another one?
This is an especially relevant question if your doctor is switching you from one drug to another to treat the same medical condition. You’ll want to understand the reason for the change. It may have to do with cost, potential side effects, your medical history, other drugs you’re taking, or allergies you have.2
3. Can this drug replace another one that I’m already taking?
“This comes up in the context of polypharmacy,” says Hulisz. (“Polypharmacy” refers to someone who’s taking five or more prescription drugs at a time.1) “Patients would prefer to keep down the number of drugs they take,” he notes. Besides saving money, eliminating a drug could cut down on medication side effects or potential interactions with other drugs or genes.1 The only way to find out is to ask whether there’s another drug you’re taking that you could put on hiatus.
4. How long will I need to take this medication?
It’s a fair question, especially for those who are taking multiple medications.6 “A lot of people don’t ask that question,” says Hulisz, but it’s a good one. If you’re taking the drug to treat an infection, the time frame may be clear. But if it’s being prescribed to treat a chronic condition such as hypertension or diabetes — or multiple chronic conditions — the answer may be less clear.
“Your doctor may not be able to answer that question because it may depend on lifestyle factors and how you respond to the drug,” says Hulisz.
5. How will I know if the medication is working, and how soon will it kick in?
Your doctor should be able to tell you what to expect by way of improvements to your health.6 But keep in mind: “Some medications can take weeks to work,” says Hulisz. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what the medication does and what the patient expects. We always counsel doctors to give patients realistic expectations for what the drug will do.”
For example, with a medication that’s intended to relieve pain, the severity of the pain may not go from a 9 or 10 to a 0 or 1. But your doctor can certainly help give you a ballpark estimate of how it will lessen your pain and how long it should take to work.
6. What side effects should I watch for?
You’ll want to know about frequent side effects caused by the drug — common ones include upset stomach, dry mouth, and drowsiness7 — as well as potential adverse drug events you should seek medical attention for. If there’s any sign you might be having trouble breathing as a result of taking the drug, you should dial 911 immediately, says Hulisz.
7. Will this drug interact with any other drugs I am currently taking?
Your doctor should be able to warn you about any potential interactions between your new drug and others you’re taking. (Make sure you bring a list of all the medications you’re currently taking with you to your appointment.) But it’s wise to ask if there are any over-the-counter medicines or supplements you should avoid while taking this medication.7 Also, ask if there are certain foods or beverages (including alcohol) you shouldn’t have while taking this drug.8
However, your doctor may not be aware that your genes may impact the efficacy and/or tolerability of certain drugs. Examples include codeine (an opioid pain reliever) and sertraline and escitalopram (antidepressants). Gene-drug interactions can lead to unwanted side effects and lack of symptom relief, among other outcomes.9
If you’re worried that you’re at risk of experiencing gene-drug or drug-drug interactions, ask your prescriber if they use a pharmacogenetic testing service or medication management software. Specifically, Genomind’s precision medicine software tool allows them to analyze gene-drug and drug-drug interactions in one composite view, which may help them prescribe you drugs in a more precise and safe way (find out more here).
8. How and when should I take this medication?
This question includes whether you should take the drug with food or on an empty stomach, as well as what time of day you should take it.2,6 “Some drugs are better tolerated in the morning so they don’t interfere with sleep,” Hulisz says. Others are best taken in the evening. “The key is that patients need to be consistent.”
9. Can I get more than a single bottle at a time?
“A lot of insurance companies are giving patients a price break if they fill a three-month supply,” says Hulisz. “It saves people money on maintenance drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, or cholesterol abnormalities.” You can ask your clinician if they can prescribe you a 90-day supply, though not all health insurance plans may cover it.
Similarly, you may be able to save money with a generic version of the drug — so ask your clinician if one is available.2
10. What should I do if I miss a dose?
Sometimes people forget to take their medication. If this happens, you need to know what to do.2,6
Skipping a dose may be fine with some medications, but with others it’s important to maintain a steady dose of the drug in your body. “It depends on what medications we’re talking about,” Hulisz says, so find out what to do ahead of time. In a pinch, you can call your pharmacist for advice.
11. If I no longer need this drug, how will I discontinue it?
The use of some medications can simply be stopped cold. But “there are some drugs like antidepressants10 and benzodiazepines11 that can’t be stopped abruptly — they need to be tapered,” Hulisz says. “Otherwise, patients will go through withdrawal.” It’s worth having this conversation with your doctor at the outset of your treatment.
- Definition of polypharmacy: Polypharmacy: evaluating risks and deprescribing (2019)
- Questions about changing to a new medication: Medication questions you should be asking (2018)
- Precision Medicine: Precision medicine and pharmacogenomics (2020)
- Off-label prescribing: Off Label Drugs: What You Need to Know (2015)
- Managing multiple medications: Help for managing multiple medications (2020)
- Asking doctor about medications: Taking medicines — what to ask your doctor (2020)
- Info on common drug side effects: Finding and learning about side effects (adverse reactions) (2021)
- Info on what you shouldn’t consume while taking medication: 10 questions to better understand your medication and risk of falling (2018)
- Your genes and drug metabolism: Pharmacogenomics (2019)
- Antidepressant withdrawal: Antidepressant withdrawal: Is there such a thing? (2019)
- Benzodiazepine withdrawal: Drug withdrawal symptoms, timelines, and treatment (2022)