Hesperian Health Guides

Using the Medicines in this Book

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 31: Use of Medicines in Women's Health > Using the Medicines in this Book

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Read the label carefully before you take any medicine.

Throughout this book, we have given the names and doses of medicines that can be used to treat some common women’s health problems. But to be able to buy and then use a medicine safely you must also know:

This information for each medicine is presented at the end of this chapter in the “Green Pages”. The rest of this chapter explains more about how to buy and safely use all of the medicines mentioned in this book.

Generic names and brand names

a pharmacy worker speaking to a woman as he shows her a box of medicine
We don't sell that brand. This one is just as good.
It is OK to substitute one medicine for another if the generic names are the same. Always take the same dose.

Most medicines have 2 names—a generic or scientific name, and a brand name. The generic name is the same everywhere in the world. The brand name is given by the company that makes the medicine. When several companies make the same medicine, it will have several brand names but only one generic name. As long as the medicine has the same generic name, it is the same medicine.

In this book, we use the generic or scientific name for medicines. For a few medicines, such as those used in family planning, we also use the most widely available brand name. If you cannot find the first medicine we recommend, try to buy one of the others listed in the same treatment box.

a bottle labeled with the words Flagyl and metronidazole

For example: Your health worker has told you to take Flagyl. But when you go to the pharmacy, they do not have any. Ask the pharmacist or health worker what the generic name is for name Flagyl (metronidazole) and ask for another brand that has the same generic name. The generic name is usually printed on the label, box, or package. If you ask for the medicine by its generic name name, you can often buy it more cheaply.

Medicine comes in different forms

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Medicines come in many different forms:

  • Tablets, capsules and liquids are usually taken by mouth. In some cases (rarely) they may need to be used in the vagina or rectum.
  • Inserts (suppositories, pessaries) are made so they can be put into the vagina or the rectum.
  • Injections are given with a needle directly into a person’s muscle, under the skin, or into the blood.
  • Creams, ointments, or salves that contain medicine are applied directly to the skin or in the vagina. They can be very useful for mild skin infections, sores, rashes, and itching.

    Which kind of medicine, and how much of it you take depends on what is available and on the disease you are trying to treat.

When to take medicines

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It is important to take medicines at the right time. Some medicines should be taken only once a day, but others must be taken more often. You do not need a clock. If the directions say ‘1 pill every 8 hours’, or ‘3 pills a day’, take one at sunrise, one in the afternoon, and one at night. If they say ‘1 pill every 6 hours’, or ‘4 pills a day’, take one in the morning, one at midday, one in the late afternoon, and one at night. If the directions say ‘1 every 4 hours’, take 6 pills a day, allowing about the same time between pills.


  • If possible, take medicines while standing or sitting up. Also, try to drink a glass of liquid each time you take a medicine.
  • If you vomit and can see the medicine in the vomit, you will need to take the medicine again.
  • If you vomit within 3 hours after taking a birth-control pill, take another one to make sure you will not get pregnant.
If you are writing a note for someone who does not read well, draw them a note like this:
a row of four blank spaces under drawings of the sun rising, the sun fully risen, the sun setting, and the moon

In the blanks at the bottom, draw the amount of medicine to take and carefully explain what it means. For example:

This means they should take 1 tablet
4 times a day:

1 at sunrise, 1 at midday, 1 in the
late afternoon, and 1 at night.

one pill in each of the four spaces
This means ½ tablet 4 times a day.
one-half pill in each of the four spaces
This means 1 capsule 3 times a day.
one capsule in each of the first, second, and fourth spaces

Who should not take a certain medicine

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Some medicines can be dangerous for certain people, or during certain times of their lives. You should be especially careful if:

  • you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Many of the medicines that you take during pregnancy and breastfeeding will be passed on to your baby. Before you take any medicine, find out if it will harm your baby. Medicines in this book that are harmful during pregnancy and breastfeeding are marked with a warning. In the Green Pages, medicines that may be harmful during pregnancy and breastfeeding will be marked with the signs below.
a pregnant woman
a woman breastfeeding a baby
a large X on a drawing of a pregnant woman
a large X on a drawing of a breastfeeding woman
read carefully
if you are pregnant
read carefully
if you are breastfeeding
= do not take if pregnant = do not take if breastfeeding

But if you are sick, it is important that you get treated. Do take medicines to treat serious illnesses and anemia. It is possible to find medicines that will not harm your baby.

  • you have long-term liver or kidney disease. Your liver and kidneys clear the medicine from your body. If they are not working well, the medicine may build up and become poisonous.
  • you have a stomach ulcer or a stomach that upsets easily (heartburn). Medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen can cause bleeding in the stomach and a painful or burning feeling. If you must take a medicine that bothers your stomach, take it with food.
  • you are allergic to the medicine. If you have ever had any of these signs after taking a medicine, you are probably allergic to that medicine:
    • a skin rash (raised, red and itchy, usually with swelling)
    • swelling
    • trouble breathing or swallowing

Being allergic means your body fights against the medicine rather than using it to fight disease. Allergic reactions happen more often with antibiotics from the penicillin and sulfa families. Avoid taking other medicines from the same ‘family’ of medicines as the one you are allergic to. You may also be allergic to them. See information about antibiotics and their families.

IMPORTANT! If you have an allergic reaction to a medicine, never take the medicine again. The next time it may cause a more serious reaction or even death.
IMPORTANT! If you have taken a medicine and then get a severe skin rash, swelling of the mouth or difficulty breathing or swallowing, get medical help immediately.


Side effects

a woman looking dizzy and sick

Medicines fight disease but can also cause other effects to happen in the body. Some are harmless but annoying. Others are harmful. For example metronidazole makes your mouth taste bad, which is annoying but harmless. Some very strong antibiotics, such as gentamicin and kanamycin, can cause permanent harm to your kidneys and hearing if too much is taken.

Before you take a medicine, find out what the possible side effects are. When using the medicines in this book you can look at the “Green Pages” to learn about possible side effects.

IMPORTANT! If you have unusual signs such as dizziness, ringing in the ears, or fast breathing, and these are not listed as side effects for the drug you are taking, see a health worker trained in giving medicines. These signs can mean that you are taking too much medicine.

Precautions (warnings)

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Some medicines have specific warnings you should learn about. But you should check with a health worker before taking the medicine if:

  • you are taking other medicines. Medicines that are safe when taken alone can be harmful when taken with another medicine, or they can be made weaker.
  • giving medicine to a child. Children have smaller bodies and may need to take less medicine. Check with a pharmacist or health worker for the right dose for a child.
  • you are older. Older people sometimes need smaller doses because medicine will stay in their bodies longer.
  • you are very small, thin or poorly nourished. You may need a smaller dose of some medicines, such as medicines for tuberculosis, high blood pressure, and seizures and other problems.

Information you should know

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Food and medicine

With most medicine, you can continue eating the foods you normally eat. Some medicines work better if you take them when your stomach is empty—one hour before or two hours after eating.

Medicines that upset the stomach should be taken with food or just after eating.

If you have nausea or vomiting, take the medicine with a dry food that calms the stomach—like rice, bread, or a biscuit.

Taking too much medicine

a boy looking sick and dizzy near a spilled bottle of pills

Some people think that taking more medicine will heal the body faster. This is not true and can be dangerous! If you take too much medicine at one time or too often, or if you take some medicines for too long, the medicine may harm you.

a woman in pain, holding a pill bottle and thinking
Would the pain go away if I took more?
Never take more medicine than the amount advised.

Some common signs of taking too much of a medicine are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain in the stomach
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • ringing in the ears
  • fast breathing

But these can also be side effects for some medicines. If you have one or more of these signs and they are not common side effects of the medicine you are taking, then you should talk to a health worker trained in giving medicines.

Poisoning. Taking too much of a medicine (for example, half a bottle or more) can poison a person, especially children. You should do the following:

  • try to make the person throw up. She may be able to get the extra medicine out of her body before it harms her more.


  • give activated charcoal. Activated charcoal can absorb some kinds of drugs and keep them from acting as poison.
  • Get medical help immediately.

This page was updated:23 Oct 2019