We take medications to diagnose, treat, or prevent illness. They come in lots of different forms and we take them in many different ways. You may take a drug yourself, or a healthcare provider may give it to you.

Drugs can be dangerous, though, even when they’re meant to improve our health. Taking them correctly and understanding the right way to administer them can reduce the risks. Read on to learn the importance of using medication as directed.

There are several different ways drugs can be administered. You’re probably familiar with injections and pills that you swallow, but medications can be given in many other ways as well.

Routes of medication administration are described in the table below.

buccalheld inside the cheek
enteraldelivered directly into the stomach or intestine (with a G-tube or J-tube)
inhalablebreathed in through a tube or mask
infusedinjected into a vein with an IV line and slowly dripped in over time
intramuscularinjected into muscle with a syringe
intrathecalinjected into your spine
intravenousinjected into a vein or into an IV line
nasalgiven into the nose by spray or pump
ophthalmicgiven into the eye by drops, gel, or ointment
oralswallowed by mouth as a tablet, capsule, lozenge, or liquid
oticgiven by drops into the ear
rectalinserted into the rectum
subcutaneousinjected just under the skin
sublingualheld under the tongue
topical applied to the skin
transdermalgiven through a patch placed on the skin

The route used to give a drug depends on three main factors:

  • the part of the body being treated
  • the way the drug works within the body
  • the formula of the drug

For instance, some drugs are destroyed by stomach acid if they’re taken by mouth. So, they may have to be given by injection instead.

Not all types of medications can be administered at home or by someone without special training. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers are trained in how to give you medication safely.

Administration of medication requires thorough understanding the drug, including:

  • how it moves through your body
  • when it needs to be administered
  • possible side effects and dangerous reactions
  • proper storage, handling, and disposal

Healthcare providers are trained in all of these issues. In fact, many healthcare providers keep in mind the “five rights” when they administer drugs:

  • the right patient
  • the right drug
  • the right time
  • the right dose
  • the right route

Medication errors happen all too often in the United States, even when drugs are given by professionals. The Food and Drug Administration receives more than 100,000 reports of medication errors annually through its MedWatch program. These errors can take place when:

  • prescribing a drug
  • entering the drug or dosage information into a computer system
  • a drug is being prepared or dispensed
  • a drug is taken by or given to someone

The “rights” are a starting point in helping to make sure that medications are given correctly and safely.

It’s important to take only the dosage described in the prescription label or other instructions. Dosage is carefully determined by your doctor and can be affected by your age, weight, kidney and liver health, and other health conditions.

For some medications, dosage must be determined by trial and error. In these cases, your healthcare provider would need to monitor you when you first start treatment.

For example, if your doctor prescribes thyroid medications or blood thinners, you would likely need to have several blood tests over time to show if the dosage is too high or too low. The results from these tests would help your doctor adjust your dosage until they find the one that’s right for you.

Many medications need to reach a certain level in your bloodstream to be effective. They need to be given at specific times, such as every morning, to keep that amount of drug in your system.

Taking a dose too soon could lead to drug levels that are too high, and missing a dose or waiting too long between doses could lower the amount of drug in your body and keep it from working properly.

Adverse events, or unwanted and negative effects, can happen with any drug. These effects can include an allergic reaction or an interaction with another drug you’re taking.

To help avoid these problems, be sure to tell your doctor about any other medications you’re taking or any times you’ve had an allergy to drugs or foods.

A drug with high risk of adverse effects may be administered only by a healthcare provider. And in some uncommon cases, your healthcare provider may keep you in their facility so they can observe how the drug affects you.

If you take a medication yourself, it’s up to you to watch for problems, such as a rash, swelling, or other side effects. If you notice any problems, be sure to let your doctor know.

Be sure to take your medications correctly to get the most out them and to reduce your risk of side effects and other problems. Anyone giving you the drug should follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.

Make sure that you understand everything about taking your medication. If you have any questions, talk to your doctor. Some questions you might ask include:

  • I’m not sure how often I should take this medication. Can you explain your instructions more clearly?
  • My nurse gives me my medication now. Can I be trained to give it to myself?
  • I’m having trouble taking my medication. Can a family member or healthcare provider give it to me instead?
  • Are there any side effects I should watch for?
  • What time of day should I take this drug? Or does it matter?
  • Am I taking any medications that this drug could interact with?