Rx FAQ: How long will I need to be on my medication?

A young woman does research on her prescription medication using her laptop computer.

When your doctor prescribes a new medication, it’s natural to wonder how long you’ll need to take it – especially if it’s a maintenance or long-term medication. Will it be a few months? A year? Perhaps the rest of your life?

The short answer is it depends. Here are some key considerations that factor into how long you might need to take your medication.

The nature of your condition

When it comes to your medication timeline, it really depends on the severity and complexity of your condition. Some conditions may be more situational, meaning that your doctor may prescribe you medication on an as-needed basis or for a shorter duration of time until symptoms or the condition resolves. Other medications may be part of a treatment plan for a chronic condition that requires lifelong management.

The purpose of the medication

It’s important to understand why you’re taking your prescribed medication. Is it to manage symptoms? Prevent complications? Cure a disease? Correct hormone levels? Here are some common types of maintenance medications and how long they are typically prescribed.

  • Birth control pills are often taken daily, but the duration depends on personal family planning goals.
  • Diabetes medications won’t cure the disease, but they can prevent future complications such as heart disease, nerve damage, kidney issues, and even vision loss, which is why they are typically taken for life. That said, your doctor may decide to add or remove medications, or make dosage adjustments based on blood sugar control and lifestyle changes.
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, won’t cure the underlying health problem, but they can help prevent some of the body-damaging effects over time, such as heart disease and stroke. They are generally prescribed for life, but your doctor may adjust the dosage or quantity of medications based on cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk.
  • Inhalers are commonly used for the management of respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or asthma. The length of time you use an inhaler depends on which type you’re prescribed and what it’s treating. A rescue inhaler, for example, is typically meant for immediate use during an emergency and not intended to be taken every day. A controller inhaler (also called a maintenance inhaler) might be prescribed for daily long-term use to help control persistent asthma.
  • Medications for mental health conditions can vary widely. Some may be prescribed for a period of time, like those used to manage postpartum depression and anxiety symptoms, while others may be lifelong. Psychiatric medications are designed to help relieve symptoms, but they won’t cure the underlying condition.
  • Pain management medications can help relieve pain symptoms but they don’t address the cause of discomfort. They are typically prescribed for short-term use to help manage pain while the body recovers.
  • Medications to manage blood pressure can help prevent possible long-term complications of high blood pressure, such as heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease, but they can’t cure it. They are generally prescribed for life, but they may be adjusted based on blood pressure control, certain lab test results, and other lifestyle factors.
  • Medications for migraines can help relieve pain symptoms and prevent future attacks. They are often prescribed on an as-needed basis. There are some medications that are prescribed daily to help prevent migraines, but the length of time you take these medications depends on the severity and frequency of headaches and what your doctor thinks is the best course of action.
  • Blood thinners may be used to help treat or prevent a blood clot. Treatment may be as short as 3 to 6 months, or they may be taken for life.

Side effects from the medication

Medications can have side effects, which range in severity depending on the patient and the medication. Some side effects are mild and temporary. Other side effects can be very serious.

If side effects are manageable and the benefits are substantial, it’s more likely that the medication will be recommended for long-term use. If side effects are severe and affecting your quality of life, your doctor may make the decision to prescribe the medication for a shorter duration of time or for intermittent use to minimize side effects.

Situations where your doctor may change your medication regimen

Your doctor may recommend changes to your maintenance medication based on several different scenarios. Never stop taking a medication without talking to your doctor first.

  • If your condition is improving or stabilizing, your doctor may consider reducing your medication dose or potentially discontinuing it.
  • If your condition is worsening or you’re experiencing new symptoms, your doctor may decide that you need to increase the dosage of your current medication, add an additional medication, or change your medication.
  • Positive lifestyle changes, such as weight loss or improved diet and exercise, may lead your doctor to decrease your medication requirements.
  • If newer or more effective medications become available, your doctor may adjust your treatment plan.

Common questions to ask your doctor about your medication

At Express Scripts® Pharmacy, we believe in empowering patients to take charge of their own health. Here are some important questions to ask your doctor when you’re prescribed a new medication.

  1. What is the purpose of this medication and how does it work to manage my condition?
  2. What are the potential side effects and how can they be managed?
  3. Are there alternative treatments or medications with fewer side effects?
  4. How long do you anticipate I’ll need to take this medication, and what will be the indicators for any changes?
  5. Can lifestyle changes reduce my need to take this medication?
  6. What regular checkups and tests are necessary to monitor my condition and medication effectiveness?

Express Scripts® Pharmacy is here for you

In addition to working with your doctor, don’t forget to turn to your pharmacist for support. Our pharmacists are available 24/7, 365 days a year, to help answer all your medication questions and provide you with as much information as possible to take charge of your health.

Posted date: February 16, 2024

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