5 Steps to Help Prevent Medication Mistakes

Does your prescription pill look different? Avoid a prescription mix-up with these simple tips.

hand holding pill bottle

Have you ever picked up a refill of your prescription medication, only to notice upon arriving home and opening the bottle that the pills look different from what you're used to?

You might start to feel anxious and wonder: Did I get the wrong medication? Is it safe to take?

The short answer is that this is a fairly common issue that patients encounter. As it happens, there are two main reasons your pills may not look familiar.

Scenario 1: Same medication, different manufacturer

When it comes to generic medications, several manufacturers may make the same drug, but they may each produce it in a different color and pill shape. As a result, if your pharmacy happened to change their supplier, you might end up with a pill that looks different but is actually the same drug.

Unfortunately, a difference in appearance is enough to cause some patients to stop taking their medications. One study published in 2014 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the chances a heart patient would stop taking their heart medication went up 34 percent after a change in pill color and 66 percent after a change in pill shape.

An abrupt interruption in taking medication is potentially dangerous, especially for those with serious conditions such as heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health issues. Doing so could lead to issues such as dangerously high blood sugar, psychiatric relapses, or even heart attack and stroke.

Scenario 2: Medication fill error

While rare, this is also a possibility. There could be a mistake in the way the prescription was transcribed, an error reading a healthcare provider's (HCP's) handwriting, or an incorrect drug selected in the pharmacy computer system.

What should you do if your medication looks different and you're unsure if it's the correct drug? First, don’t take a medication unless you’re sure what it is, but do find out ASAP if it is actually correct, because you don’t want to miss doses.

To help avoid “pill anxiety” situations like these, consider following these steps:

Talk to the pharmacist. It's tempting to want to grab and go, but when you pick up a prescription, take a few extra minutes to ask the pharmacist if you should expect the medication to look different.

Open the bottle while at the pharmacy counter. If you notice a different look to your pills, ask the pharmacist right away. This is especially important if you need to take a dose that day or if you’re about to leave on a trip. You don’t want to get to a new destination and wonder if you have the right meds.

If you leave the store without checking your medication, take a look as soon as you get home. If something appears to be unfamiliar, call the pharmacist right away or return the bottle to the drugstore. Reach out to your HCP, as well, if you have any concerns.

Do a quick at-home check. Search for an online pill identifier to see pictures of the medication you should be taking.

Keep a list of your current medication. That includes dosage and a description of the pill. Update it when anything about your prescription changes.

Article sources open article sources

Kesselheim AS, Bykov K, Avorn J, et al. Burden of Changes in Pill Appearance for Patients Receiving Generic Cardiovascular Medications After Myocardial Infarction: Cohort and Nested Case–Control Studies. Ann Intern Med. 2014;161:96–103.
Drugs.com. “Top 5 Ways to Avoid Drug Errors”
Harvard Health Publishing. “How to manage your medicines”
Drugs.com. “Top 6 Safety Tips for Stopping Your Meds”
UpToDate. “Can drug therapy be discontinued in well-controlled hypertension?”
UpToDate. “Discontinuing antidepressant medications in adults”
Consumer Reports. “What can I do if the pharmacy gives me the wrong drug?”
US Food and Drug Administration. “Working to Reduce Medication Errors”

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