Using medication

At a glance

  • Medications can be used in many different ways and come in many different forms.
  • For instance, they can be swallowed, injected or put on your skin.
  • Using the right dose and form is important for the success of your treatment and can prevent side effects.
  • There are things to look out for – especially if you're using several different medications or need to use them for a long time.

Introduction

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

Medications can be used in a number of different ways – for example in the form of tablets, drops, injections and sprays.

It is often not that easy to use them. For instance, tablets can have an unpleasant taste or be very large, making them harder to swallow. And using eye drops correctly can take some practice.

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

Routes of administration

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) to the skin, hair, or nails, or travel around the body in the bloodstream.

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

  • Oral: The most common way to use medication is to take it orally (swallow it) in the form of tablets or capsules. But it's also possible to take medication in the form of drops, syrup or a dissolved powder.
  • Sublingual: Some drugs are absorbed by the lining of the mouth. They dissolve while they are still in your mouth. So they are taken by placing a tablet under your tongue or in your cheek, for instance.
  • Nasal or aural: Some medications are available as nasal (nose) sprays or drops. Drops that are used in your ear are also known as "aural" or "otic" drugs.
  • Cutaneous: Medications can be put on your skin in the form of creams or gels, for instance. Some only have an effect on that area of your skin, while others spread through the bloodstream to the rest of your body. A number of medications are applied using patches that slowly release them into the skin.
  • Subcutaneous (SC): The drug is injected into the fat tissue just under the skin (subcutaneous fat tissue) and slowly absorbed into the blood stream.
  • Rectal: Medication can be used in the (bottom), for example in the form of suppositories and enemas.
  • Intravenous (IV): A doctor injects the medication directly into a vein (injection) or attaches a drip (infusion) that slowly releases the medication into the bloodstream over a longer period of time.
  • Inhaled: These medications are inhaled (breathed in) as a spray or a fine powder and absorbed by the mucous membranes lining the in the lungs.
  • Intramuscular (IM): The medication is injected into a large muscle such as the gluteal muscle (in the bottom) or the biceps muscle (in the upper arm).
  • Vaginal: A woman inserts the medication into her vagina, in the form of an ointment or a suppository.

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

The dosage forms include:

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

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 a 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, osteoarthritis and heart disease. Special containers for medications (dispensers) and a list of the medications can then help you to keep track of things.

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

Their bodies may also be slower to absorb some medications or to break a substance down than when they were younger. This increases the risk of side effects and drug interactions. The use of certain medications might also increase the risk of falls. It's possible to become dependent on some medications, such as sleeping pills or sedatives.

Many people also take dietary supplements, sometimes for long periods of time. They do so in the hope that the vitamins and minerals in the supplements will improve their and prevent illnesses. But taking high doses of certain vitamins over a long period of time for no good reason is more likely to harm your health.

Special areas of use

Sometimes medicines are used to treat medical conditions for which they haven't been approved by the country's regulatory authorities. This is referred to as "off-label" use, and may be a good alternative or the only treatment option. But it is also sometimes associated with certain risks. If a doctor prescribes medicine to you off label, they are required to specifically tell you about these risks.

When children need to take medicine, it's especially important to check that the dose is correct to avoid risks. The dosage information for children is typically different from that for adults. It can be easy to give them too much medication, particularly if the medicine is in liquid form, such as liquid , painkillers or cough syrup. You may also need a lot of patience when trying to give medicine to very young children.

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

Further information

In Germany, a standardized medication schedule was introduced in 2016 to help people who need to take three or more systemic medications over the long term. More in-depth information on this medication schedule is provided by the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (Kassenärztliche Bundesvereinigung).

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on August 24, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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