What to know when stopping a prescription medication

A man holds a glass of water in one hand and a pill in the other.

Doctors and pharmacists focus a lot on what to expect when you’ve been prescribed a new maintenance medication, such as potential side effects, how to take it properly, and when you might start to feel better. But what if you need to stop taking that medication?

Truth be told, not all medications need to be taken forever. There are numerous instances where your doctor may decide it’s actually better to discontinue a long-term medication rather than continue prescribing it.

Here’s some helpful information to keep in mind when you’re about to stop taking a prescription medication.

Always talk to your doctor

There are many reasons why someone might want to stop taking their medication. Uncomfortable side effects, having difficulty juggling multiple prescriptions, feeling like the medication isn’t helping, or the opposite — that it has helped and they feel better. But you should never stop taking any of your prescription medications without consulting your doctor first.

“When someone takes a medication regularly, many times it’s hard to measure the benefit,” explained Mike Martinelli, a registered pharmacist with Express Scripts® Pharmacy. “This often creates the sense that a patient may not need the medication or may not need to take it every day, but this scenario can be dangerous from a health standpoint.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as half of chronic disease treatment failures and about 125,000 deaths a year are the result of medication non-adherence, which is when patients don’t take their medication as prescribed.1

Stopping medication abruptly can lead to unpleasant side effects, rebound symptoms (where symptoms of your medical condition reappear), withdrawal, or it can even make current medical conditions worse. This is particularly concerning for patients with conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, where symptoms don’t necessarily present themselves until the condition has progressed.

Your healthcare provider will be better able to assess your condition, provide alternative medications, or come up with a safe plan to remove medications if they see fit.

Why a doctor might discontinue a prescription medication

There are a several reasons why your doctor might discontinue your maintenance medication:

  • Your condition is clinically improving or has stabilized. In this case, your doctor will monitor you after stopping the medication to make sure that your condition does not get worse or that you don’t experience new or recurring symptoms.
  • You are experiencing side effects. “Side effects are possible with all medications,” said Martinelli. “Sometimes, if you are taking multiple medications, it may be difficult to determine which medication is causing a certain side effect. Your doctor may stop the most likely medication and monitor your symptoms.”
  • There are drug interactions, safety concerns (such as high-risk drugs in older adults), or health complications. For example, if you are pregnant, your doctor may discontinue medications like warfarin, certain ACE inhibitors, or opioids because of the risks they pose to the developing baby.

How to safely stop medication

Whenever you stop taking a medication, it’s helpful to have a discontinuation plan with your doctor. This way you know how long the process will likely take and the symptoms you might experience.

Certain medications can be dangerous to stop taking too quickly. For example, stopping blood pressure medication abruptly can increase your risk of heart attack. Doing this with blood thinners can increase your risk of blood clots or stroke. Stopping anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants without a plan can cause withdrawal symptoms, like headaches or nausea.

Rather than stop cold turkey, your doctor will likely lower the dose of your medication slowly over time to decrease the risk of side effects, withdrawal symptoms, or rebound symptoms. The ultimate goal will be to eventually stop the medication altogether, assuming you’re able to manage your condition without it.

Our pharmacists are here to help

The decision to stop taking a long-term prescription medication isn’t something to take lightly. It requires careful consideration and planning with your healthcare team.

At Express Scripts® Pharmacy, our pharmacists are available 24/7 to discuss your medication concerns. They can also discuss potential side effects or things to monitor when a discontinuation plan is in place. They can even reach out to your doctor on your behalf to discuss your medication options. Learn more about Express Scripts® Pharmacy.

1 U.S Food & Drug Administration: Why You Need to Take Your Medications as Prescribed or Instructed (accessed April 25, 2023): fda.gov/drugs/special-features/why-you-need-take-your-medications-prescribed-or-instructed

Posted date: July 26, 2023

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