9 Questions to Ask Your Doctor When You Receive a Prescription

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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From chronic diseases to short-term illnesses, doctors treat countless conditions with prescription medications. But regardless of the reason you may receive a prescription, it’s essential to have a full understanding of the drug and why you’re taking it before you head to the pharmacy. By taking a few moments to ask your doctor these key questions, you can help make sure your treatment is effective, avoid potential interactions—and possibly even save some money.

1. “Why are you prescribing this medication?”

Knowing the reason your doctor is prescribing you a specific medication will help you understand how the medication works and how it may improve your health. In turn, this knowledge can make you more likely to take the drug as prescribed. (Nearly 50% of people in the United States don’t take their medications as their doctors prescribed them, according to the World Health Organization.) Ask your doctor what goals he or she is trying to achieve through this prescription, and what factors led to choosing this specific medication versus other available options.

2. “Can my condition be treated without prescription medications?”

Some conditions can be managed successfully with over-the-counter drugs or lifestyle changes (or both). For example, if you have gastroesophageal acid reflux (GERD), your treatment may start with over-the-counter antacids combined with changes to your diet, such as smaller meals and avoiding spicy or acidic foods. If these steps are no longer effective at controlling symptoms, your doctor may then suggest prescription medication. But many providers prefer to try non-pharmaceutical options first, so clarify that you’ve reached a point where prescription treatment is necessary.

3. “Is there a generic available?”

Generic medication contains the same amount of the active ingredient as the brand medication, and typically costs much less. While some people worry a generic is much weaker in concentration than the brand name, the truth is the difference is minor. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration requires that generic medications vary in concentration by no more than 3.5% of the active ingredient found in the brand version. Generic drugs may have different inactive ingredients, which can affect how quickly the medication is absorbed, as well as the blood levels of the medication in the body. Ask your doctor if these differences are significant enough to prevent you from taking the generic, or whether you can achieve your same treatment goals with the generic version. Conversely, clarify if you need the brand-name drug specifically, as some pharmacies and insurance plans will automatically switch to the generic if it’s available.

4. “How should I take this medication?”

Understanding how to use your new medication correctly helps you get the best results from taking it. Before you leave your appointment, make sure you know these specifics:

  • How many times a day should I take this medication?

  • What time of day should I take this medication?

  • Should I take this medication on an empty stomach, with food, before meals, or after meals?

  • Should I store my medication in the refrigerator or at room temperature?

  • Can I crush or chew the pills?

  • Is it OK to break open the capsules?

  • Is it OK to give myself the shot in the same place each time?

If necessary, take notes so you can follow the correct procedure once you get home. Your pharmacist can also provide specific instructions when you pick up your prescription.

5. “How long do I need to take this medication?”

For short-term illnesses, it’s important to know the complete course of treatment so you can fully recover. For example, when taking antibiotics for an infection, your doctor will stress that you need to take all prescribed pills, even after your symptoms improve. When treating chronic conditions, clarify if a medication is long-term or even lifelong.

Also ask how the dosage amount may change over time. Your doctor may want to start you on a low dose of the medication and gradually increase it as your body adjusts. Finally, confirm whether you are allowed to stop taking the medication. Many prescription medications can cause withdrawal effects or serious reactions if you stop taking them suddenly or too soon.

6. “How long will it take to feel the effects of this medication?”

Many factors can influence how a medication affects your body. These include personal health factors, such as your age or if you have pre-existing conditions like kidney or liver problems. Details related to the drug itself can also change your body’s reaction, including what time of day you take it, whether you take it with food or on an empty stomach, or how the drug is administered (such as pill, injection or cream form).

Ask your doctor what you should expect over time as you take the medication. Confirm whether the drug is immediate-release—meaning it takes effect almost immediately, as with a corticosteroid shot—or extended-release, meaning it works over a long period of time. Drugs like antidepressants or mood stabilizers can take weeks before you notice a difference. By knowing how long it may take for a drug to take effect, you’re less likely to stop a drug too soon because it seems as though it’s not working. Clarify with your doctor when to expect a change—and when to follow up if you don’t notice one.

7. “What side effects does this medication usually cause?”

Side effects are a primary concern for many patients when beginning a new prescription medication. As with any medical decision, it’s important to outweigh the benefits of the treatment with the risks of potential side effects you may experience. Ask your doctor to be specific about what side effects you should anticipate and how to cope with them.

Pay special attention to side effects that could be dangerous in certain situations, such as drowsiness or difficulty concentrating. In some cases, side effects will decrease as you take the drug over time. If side effects are preventing you from taking your medication, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to provide additional treatments or find an alternate medication with fewer or more manageable side effects.

8. “How will this medication interact with food and my other medications?”

Because many prescription medications interact with other drugs, it’s important to tell your doctor everything you’re already taking when you receive a new prescription. This includes over-the-counter medications, vitamins, dietary supplements, and herbal products. You may need to stop taking one or more of your other medications, or your doctor may decide to prescribe a different treatment.

Additionally, some foods can affect how well certain medications work. For example, milk, yogurt and cheese block the effects of certain antibiotics. Ask your doctor if you need to make any temporary changes to your diet while on your prescription to get the full benefit of your treatment.

9. “When should I contact you or call 911?”

Ask your doctor to distinguish between typical side effects and what should be considered an urgent or emergency situation that requires medical attention. Make sure you know how to reach the doctor’s office during off-hours if necessary. Confirm whether a drug may require regular monitoring with your doctor, as with blood thinners like warfarin, and establish the schedule of those follow-ups.

Medications also have the potential to cause an allergic reaction. Make sure you understand which symptoms are mild, such as itching or a light rash, and which are severe, including hives, difficulty breathing, or swelling of the eyes, face and tongue. Be clear on what steps you should take if you experience these symptoms while on your medication. Finally, determine a timeline of when a drug should begin take effect, so you know if you just need to be patient or if it’s time to see the doctor about new treatment options. When it comes to prescription medications, as with any facet of your healthcare, knowledge is power. By taking the time to ask these questions and fully understand all aspects of your prescription, you can ensure you’re taking your medication correctly and getting the effective treatment you need.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jul 11
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