Pill Refill Anxiety: Medication Mix-ups

You pick up your monthly prescription for your blood pressure medication and head home. But the next day when you go to take your dose from the new bottle, you notice that instead of the normal white oval pills, these pills are green and round.

Is it the wrong medication? Should you take it?
It’s a common –- and potentially anxiety-provoking -- problem for patients. There are two main reasons that your pill may not look the same:
1. It’s the same medication and dose, just a different manufacturer. With generic medications, several manufacturers could make the same drug -- yet each could produce it in a different color and form. So if your pharmacy changes where it buys the medication from, you could end up with a pill that looks different, but is the exact same drug.
Unfortunately, a difference in appearance is enough to cause some patients to stop taking their medications. A recent study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the odds a heart patient would stop taking their heart medication went up 34% after a change in pill color and 66% after a change in pill shape. Suddenly stopping a medication is potentially dangerous, especially for those with serious conditions such as heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and psychiatric medications. Doing so can lead to dangerous consequences such as dangerously high blood sugar, psychiatric relapses and even heart attack and stroke.
2. It was a medication fill error. While rare, this is also a possibility. A pharmacy chain was fined after it was discovered that the prescriptions for fluoride tablets for approximately 50 children at a New Jersey drugstore were filled with Tamoxifen pills -- a potent breast cancer drug. The pills were apparently similar in size and color but had different imprint codes on them. The medication error was quickly discovered and, fortunately, no one was harmed.
What should you do if your medication looks different? Naturally, you don’t want to take a medication unless you’re sure of what it is, but you also don’t want to miss one or more doses for fear of taking the wrong meds.
Here are a few ways to avoid “pill anxiety:”
  1. When you pick up a prescription, ask the pharmacist if you should expect the medication to look different.
  2. Not everyone will remember to ask if the pill looks different! So be sure to look at the medication as soon as you get home. If it does, call the pharmacist right away or return the bottle to the drugstore to check if you’ve got the right meds. This is especially important if you need a dose that day or night, 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 or not.
  3. Do a quick at-home check. Go to sites such as the National Institutes of Health “Pillbox” where you can see pictures of the medication you should be taking.