Skipping your meds? Here's why that's a bad idea

Not taking the right doses at the right time—or omitting your medications completely—can put your health in danger.

man holding pill bottle

Updated on March 22, 2024.

Being on medication is necessary for millions of people. It's estimated that up to 70 percent of adults in the United States have a prescription at any given time. 

Taking medication as prescribed by your healthcare provider (HCP), called adherence, is critical for your health. But many people skip their medications or take them incorrectly. In fact, about half of Americans don't take their medications as prescribed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s not all. Some studies suggest that each year, about 125,000 deaths are caused by not adhering to prescriptions.

Reasons for medical non-adherence

“It happens all the time,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician, Associate Professor in the department of Family Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, and member of Sharecare’s Advisory Board. 

Reasons for not taking medication vary from person to person. But common explanations from patients include:

  • Forgetting
  • Financial hardships
  • Unpleasant side effects
  • Concerns about possible side effects
  • Confusion about how the medication works

“Another reason is the fact that some patients are not entirely comfortable taking medications, period,” says Dr. Caudle. “This could be due to a whole set of in-depth reasons. Perhaps they’d prefer what they consider to be a natural or holistic solution. But there are people who feel they would rather do without, and that’s a big issue.”

Also, some people are unaware of how medication works to improve or manage their health condition. “I don’t blame patients for this lack of knowledge, especially those who think, ‘Now I feel better, I can stop,’” she continues. “It could simply be a misunderstanding, and this is where physicians and patients need to do a better job of communicating.” 

The flip side of this: People may expect to feel differently when they're on medication. If they don't, they may not believe it's working.

What happens when you don't take your medication

Medication can be prescribed to:

  • Treat a temporary medical issue, like the flu or an ear infection
  • Manage a chronic condition, like diabetes
  • Prevent a health event from happening again, such as a heart attack or stroke

When you don’t take medication correctly, your disease may progress faster. Complications could result, or even death. 

Take heart disease, the leading cause of death for U.S. adults. According to the American Heart Association, people who don’t take their heart medications as prescribed may have a 40 percent increased risk of a hospital stay. They may also have a 50 to 80 percent higher risk of dying.

Stopping medications without the advice of your HCP can also cause harm, adds Caudle. For one thing, you’re no long treating your condition. But it could result in other health complications and side effects, too. “There are certain blood pressure meds, for example, that if stopped abruptly could worsen blood pressure, among other things. We don’t want to stop anti-depressants abruptly, either,” she says.

Again, Caudle stresses the importance of communicating with your HCP. “I always tell my patients, ‘It’s okay that you want to stop a medication—but what I ask you to do is talk to me, let me know what you’re thinking and what your concerns are, so we can come up with a plan that works for you,’” she says. “Even if someone can’t afford the medication, I want to know so I can try to help them navigate this problem.”

Tips for taking your meds

One of the most common reasons people take their meds incorrectly? They simply forget. That's why Caudle is "a big fan" of pill boxes. “They’re great for keeping meds organized and you can easily see if you’ve taken your pills that day or not.” She suggests keeping your medications in a place you visit at least once a day as part of your routine, like next to your toothbrush.

“Then there’s technology—a number of apps can remind us to take our meds each day and to refill the prescription before we’re down to the last pill,” says Caudle. “After all, forgetting to call in time for a refill can result in days without meds, as well.” 

Remember, too, that talking with your HCP is key. They can share strategies to improve your medication adherence and work with you to make sure your needs are being addressed. In the end, your health is worth it.

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