When your doctor is discussing treatment options with you, there may be short discussion about the best route, or not. It's important that you know the difference in order to be part of the discussion.
The most common, oral administration is by mouth. It can be liquid, capsules, tablets, or chewables. Oral medications are the most common because they are the safest and the most inexpensive. Oral medications may be affected by food in the digestive tract as well as stomach acids. Still others can irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines, so these medications should be used cautiously and according to recommended dosages only.
Oral medications are not best for patients who are unable to swallow properly, when a drug needs to work immediately, in high dosages, or when drugs are not properly absorbed by the digestive tract.
If you're in the hospital with a severe infection, your medical team may opt for the fast and affective route, which means an injection. Even with injections, however, there are various routes.
Subcutaneous - Medicine is injected just under the skin, where it is absorbed by blood vessels and carried through the blood stream. This route is commonly used and most affective for small vaccinations, insulin, and morphine.
Intramuscular - Medicine is injected into large muscle groups such as in the arms, legs, or buttock. This method is most used when large amounts of medication is necessary, such as in adult vaccinations and pain management.
Intravenous - When a medication must be precise, must work quickly, or when it may irritate the injection site, it may be injected directly into a vein. Medical staff may administer intravenously through an IV bag or by one shot.
Intrathecal - When medication is injected directly into the spinal cord instead of the blood stream, it is injected between two vertebrae in the lower back. This method produces near immediate results and is used to treat spinal infections and in anesthetics and analgesics.
Sublingual and Buccal Routes
Medications that are placed under the tongue and absorbed by the small blood vessels there act faster than if they are administered orally because they are not digested. However, the sublingual route is not right for all medications because it often results in incomplete absorption. Common medications that are administered in this way are Nitroglycerin and Suboxone. Only medications that are designed to be sublingually administered should be used in this way.
Medications can be administered steadily through the skin by way of a patch that is changed periodically. This allows for the drug to be delivered at a continuous and slow rate, keeping the medication in the system without the need to take pills throughout the day. Common transdermal medications include Nicotine and Fentanyl, though there are many others including hormone therapy and high blood pressure treatment. This method may not be right for you if you have an allergy to adhesive(s).
The most important thing to remember when discussing treatment with your medical staff is communicating clearly. If you receive oral tablets of a medication from your pharmacy, and then the topical gel of that same medication arrives in the mail a week later, do you take both? It's important to understand that though the routes are different, the medication is the same. Follow recommended dosage and read all information provided by your doctor and pharmacy to avoid adverse reactions, improper treatment, and overdose.