Photo of a woman reading the print on a drug package (PantherMedia / Monkeybusiness Images)

Tablets and drops, injections and sprays are only some of a number of different types of medication.

And using them might not be that easy: Tablets can be very large or have an unpleasant taste, making them harder to swallow. Using eye drops correctly can take some practice.

What is important to consider when taking medication, and what different forms can medication come in?

Dosage forms

A drug can take effect either specifically in the area of the body it is applied to (local) or throughout the body (systemic). It can be applied topically (on the surface) on the skin, the hair, or the nails, or spread in the bloodstream through the body.

These are the most common routes of administration (how it is used):

  • Oral: The most common way of using medication is to take it orally (swallow) in tablet of capsule form. Liquid medication such as drops, syrups or granulates are also taken orally.
  • Sublingual: Some drugs are absorbed by the lining of the mouth. They dissolve while still in the mouth and are often placed in a cheek pouch or under the tongue for this purpose.
  • Subcutaneous (SC): The drug is injected into the subcutaneous fat tissue and absorbed into the blood stream slowly.
  • Rectal: Suppositories and enemas are inserted into the rectum.
  • Intravenous (IV): The drug enters the bloodstream directly by being injected into a vein or by gradually dripping from an IV bag (infusion).
  • Inhaled: These drugs are inhaled as a spray or a fine powder and absorbed by the mucous membranes of the bronchi.
  • Intramuscular (IM): The drug is injected into a large muscle such as the gluteal muscle (buttocks) or the biceps muscle.
  • Vaginal: The drug is inserted into the vagina, often as an ointment or a suppository.

For a drug to reach its destination and be effective enough, the choice of dosage form is also important. This choice not only depends on the physical and chemical properties of the drug. Other influential factors include where, when and for how long a medication should have an effect, and whether it is to be taken by a child or an adult.

The most common dosage forms are:

  • Solid: tablets (sugar-coated or film-coated) and capsules
  • Liquid: tinctures, drinks, syrups, intravenous solutions, eye and nose drops
  • Semisolid: ointments, creams
  • Specific forms: sprays, patches, inhalation powder

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Long-term use

Taking a tablet as needed for a nagging headache or toothache is usually straightforward. But it can be difficult to keep taking one medication regularly for a long period of time. It can be especially hard if you have to take several medicines because of chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Just keeping track of it all can be a challenge.

What's more, different medications might affect each other when taken together, resulting in a different effect or increasing the likelihood of side effects. So it is important to look out for possible interactions. This is especially true for older people who often take several medications to treat various conditions.

Their bodies may also be more slow to absorb some drugs or to break a substance down than when they were younger, making side effects and interactions more common. The use of some medications also increases the risk of falling. There is also a risk of becoming dependent on some kinds of medications, such as sedatives and sleeping pills.

Many people regularly take dietary supplements for a long time, hoping to improve their immune system and prevent illnesses with vitamins and minerals. But studies have shown that long-term usage of certain vitamins, especially at higher dosages, can actually increase the risk of falling ill.

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Research summaries

Special areas of use

Sometimes medicines are used to treat medical conditions for which they have not been licensed by the country's regulatory authorities. This kind of use, known as "off-label" use, might be associated with special risks.

When children need to take medication, it is especially important to use the correct dose to prevent risks. It can be easy to give them too much medication, particularly if the medicine is in liquid form, such as liquid antibiotics, painkillers or cough syrup. Also, making small children take their medicine may require a lot of patience.

The correct use of antibiotics is an important topic in general. Using antibiotics incorrectly or too frequently is risky – this not only increases the risk of side effects, but it also leads to bacteria becoming resistant and the drugs losing their effectiveness.

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Further information

The 2016 German National Medication Schedule is a standardized medication schedule that aims to assist the general public in using medication. More in-depth information on the medication schedule is provided by the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (Kassenärztliche Bundesvereinigung).